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On Asia Trip, Trump Met by Protests Calling on U.S. to Open Diplomatic Relations with North Korea

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President Donald Trump continued his five-nation tour of Asia, landing in Vietnam today for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. This comes as Trump said on Thursday that he wants Russia’s help in getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. In Korea, he attempted to visit the Demilitarized Zone, but his fleet of helicopters was turned back due to bad weather. We speak with Professor Bruce Cumings, who just returned from Seoul, South Korea, where Trump was met with protests. He is professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of several books on Korea, including “Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Donald Trump is in Vietnam to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, known as APEC, and discuss trade with leaders of 21 member countries. The visit is part of his five-nation tour in Asia. Hours after leaving China, Trump took the stage of the APEC summit and gave an address that criticized China’s lack of a balanced trade relationship with the United States and condemned the multilateral accords pursued by past presidents.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: For many years, the United States systematically opened our economy, with few conditions. We lowered or ended tariffs, reduced trade barriers and allowed foreign goods to flow freely into our country. But while we lowered market barriers, other countries didn’t open their markets to us. Funny. They must have been one of the beneficiaries. …

Simply put, we have not been treated fairly by the World Trade Organization. Organizations like the WTO can only function properly when all members follow the rules and respect the sovereign rights of every member. We cannot achieve open markets if we do not ensure fair market access. I do not blame China or any other country, of which there are many, for taking advantage of the United States on trade. If their representatives are able to get away with it, they are just doing their jobs. I wish previous administrations in my country saw what was happening and did something about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Immediately after President Trump made his address, Chinese President Xi Jinping took the stage to deliver a starkly contrasting speech that called for more global trade agreements. The Chinese leader also said he supports the Paris climate accord.

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: [translated] We have seen a profound change in economic globalization over the last few decades. Economic globalization has contributed significantly to global growth. Indeed, it has become an irreversible historical trend. … In the face of deep changes in the global economy, does the Asia-Pacific region have the bravery to face the wave of reform and innovation, or do we hesitate? Should we steer economic globalization, or should we dither in the face of challenges? Should we jointly advance regional cooperation, or should we go our separate ways?

AMY GOODMAN: Shortly before Trump arrived in Da Nang, Vietnam, where the APEC summit is taking place, the White House announced he will not have a formal meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is also in town to attend the APEC summit. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday a meeting between the two leaders would depend on if they had, quote, “sufficient substance” to talk about. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the leaders may meet at an upcoming regional conference in the Philippines. She also said they might have an informal meeting in Da Nang.

This comes as Trump said Thursday, after meetings with China’s president, that he wants Russia’s help in getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Trump spent much of his trip in Asia focused on North Korea. He told leaders of South Korea’s government Wednesday that the United States stands ready to attack North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. While in Korea, Trump attempted to visit the Demilitarized Zone, but his fleet of helicopters, that included the press, was turned back because of bad weather. Trump’s first stop on his Asia trip took him to Japan, where he said Japan could shoot North Korean missiles out of the sky with military equipment bought from the U.S. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has responded, his country could intercept missiles, if necessary, and said he’s looking into the deal. President Trump was pushing billions of dollars of weapons on Japan.

Well, for more, we’re joined in Chicago by Bruce Cumings, professor of history at the University of Chicago, just returned from Seoul, South Korea, last evening. He’s the author of several books on Korea, including Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History and North Korea: Another Country.

Professor Cumings, welcome back to Democracy Now!

BRUCE CUMINGS: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how President Trump was met in South Korea, where you also were?

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, President Trump was given a red-carpet treatment by the government, just as he was in Japan and China. But there were large protests right outside the American Embassy, which is in downtown Seoul. There were maybe over a thousand protesters, and entirely against Trump, saying, particularly, “No war.” I was really struck by the violence of emotion on that particular issue. Koreans are under the threat of war, of course, from North Korea. The DMZ is just 35 miles from Seoul. And that’s been the case for decades and decades. But Trump has raised an immediate issue of attacking North Korea, as you just said. And I’ve never experienced the kind of emotion that I saw both in the protests and in the conference that I attended. People in the audience were standing up and saying things like “Trump is 10 times more dangerous than Kim Jong-un,” and then everybody clapped.

But it’s remarkable that Trump, you know, is running through East and Southeast Asia talking about North Korea, but he only spent a little over a day in Korea and, instead, is discussing Korean problems with Prime Minister Abe in Tokyo and President Xi in China. He manages to denigrate South Korea without even trying. He told Abe over the phone some weeks ago that the South Korean president was engaged in appeasement. And I just think the relations between South Korea and the United States are bad, and they’re probably going to get worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I just wanted to turn to some of the protests you describe, as hundreds gathered as Trump toured the U.S. Army base Camp Humphreys.

LEE EUN-WOO: [translated] We do not want Trump to visit South Korea, because he keeps on talking about war in the Korean Peninsula and putting pressure on commerce and forcing weapons trading. How can we welcome someone like this to Pyeongtaek and South Korea?

AMY GOODMAN: So, Bruce Cumings, if you could respond to that? And also if you think Trump changed his tone, from talking about “Little Rocket Man” and talking about, you know, the “fire and fury,” bringing that down on the 25 million North Koreans, to, well, taking a different approach, maybe, in fact, more cutting for the North Korean leader, talking about his grandfather and his father?

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, I think Trump modulated his violent rhetoric while he was in Korea. That’s the least he could do. I didn’t see anything in what Trump said that indicated a diplomatic approach in the wings, a diplomatic approach to North Korea. Essentially, he said almost nothing when he was in Korea, nothing that was newsworthy. I thought it was interesting that his staff told everybody that Trump wasn’t going to go to the DMZ, because that’s become a cliché for American presidents, and then, yesterday, he tried to get in his helicopter and fly up to the DMZ for—to look tough in the face of the North Koreans. But it was a very foggy day, and he couldn’t land, as you said. He went to this Pyeongtaek—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is very interesting. They actually—

BRUCE CUMINGS: —military base—

AMY GOODMAN: Just to say, they actually flew five minutes outside of the DMZ, not only Marine One, President Trump’s helicopter, but the press following. And then they were stopped—many might call it poetic justice—by the climate.

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, it is a cliché, where American presidents glare into the North and flex their muscles. Vice President Pence has already been there doing that. To me, it’s just a symbol of the immobility of American policy toward Korea going back 60 years now. The DMZ was formed in 1953. We have just an armistice that ended the Korean War in that year. And it would be a major step forward if the U.S. would at least try to get together with North Korea and China and put an end to the state of war.

I was going to say about his trip to the military base in Pyeongtaek, that’s the largest American military base in the world outside the United States. The U.S. has operational control, in a crisis, of 650,000 South Korean soldiers. And yet, National Security Council head, Mr. General McMaster, chided South Korea for not protecting its sovereignty, over a deal that South Korea made with China just before Trump showed up. I think that’s probably the most important thing regarding South Korea that happened on this trip. China and South Korea agreed that there would be no more THAAD anti-missile batteries installed in South Korea.

And the South Korean president said explicitly that he would not join an alliance of the U.S. and Japan, whether it’s targeted at China or anybody else. And he pointedly said the U.S. is an ally—we have a mutual defense treaty with Korea. Japan is not an ally. And then he, or his staff, brought a comfort woman, 88 years old—in other words, a sex slave of the Japanese army—to meet with Trump when he was in Korea. So, the Japanese weren’t too happy about that. But it’s absolutely ridiculous that the U.S. keeps trying to knock together a tripartite alliance between Japan, Korea and the United States, when relations between Japan and Korea are still as bad as they are, and Japan has never really issued a proper apology for putting more than 100,000 Korean women into sex slavery.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about both the role of China, when it comes to North Korea, and also the role of Russia? It’s not exactly clear if President Trump will be meeting with Vladimir Putin in Da Nang, Vietnam, at the APEC summit. There’s been a lot of controversy swirling around it. They said he was going to, and now they’re saying it will be an informal, kind of poolside meeting. But you don’t usually hear Russia talked about very much with North Korea. What role does Russia play?

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, I mean, it’s absurd to say that Trump and Putin don’t have anything substantive to talk about. They have about 15 substantive things they could talk about.

But anyway, Russia actually has better relations with North Korea right now than China does. Putin has been trying to say some, I think, fairly levelheaded things about the situation, particularly that no matter how much you sanction North Korea, the North Koreans are going to eat grass before they give up their nuclear weapons, which is exactly right. The sanctions have never worked. You know, North Korea has been sanctioned since early 1950, before the Korean War. Most of your listeners, you know, weren’t alive then. Maybe their parents weren’t alive then. Just constant sanctions, slapping on more sanctions. North Korea gets its back to the wall, which is what the situation they deal with best. And over time, it turns out nothing happens, in terms of the sanctions actually yielding positive results.

North Korea’s relationship with China is about as bad as it’s ever been. These were very close allies for decades during the Korean War and the Cold War thereafter. Kim Il-sung and his son were very close to top Chinese leaders. But Kim Jong-un has not met Xi Jinping, hasn’t been invited to Beijing, which used to be a ritual for a new North Korean leader. And the Chinese have been trying to send an envoy to Pyongyang for weeks. And Pyongyang keeps saying, you know, “Stay home. We know what you’re going to say.” North Korea looks at China as basically ganging up on it with the United States. And the U.S. has this fantasy that somehow China is going to be able to turn the screws hard enough on North Korea that North Korea will yell “Uncle!” and give up its nuclear weapons. That’s never going to happen. But it reflects the poor understanding in Washington, the poor understanding of Sino-North Korean relations. China is never going to do anything that would seriously threaten the stability of that regime.

AMY GOODMAN: How close do you think the U.S. is to nuclear war with North Korea, Professor Cumings?

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, I was asked that by people in Korea, who have a little bit more interest in the subject than we do, although probably their missiles can reach here in Chicago. You know, I’ve been thinking about this question for six months. And I can’t believe anyone in their right mind would want to launch a preemptive attack, either to take out—if it could be done—North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles or to decapitate the regime, which we talk about or which the Pentagon and inside-the-Beltway people talk about as if that would be great, if we could get away with it. It’s, of course, completely in violation of international law to do something like that.

A nuclear war between North Korea and the United States would devastate the region. But more than that, it would probably lead to at least two years of nuclear winter, where the debris swirling around the planet and the atmosphere would make it impossible to grow crops. Anyone who talks about nuclear war in this day and age, with all we know about nuclear winter and the terrible effects of nuclear weapons, is basically a war criminal, in my view. Nuclear weapons should never be used. And especially to see a president of United States go to the United Nations and threaten to totally destroy North Korea, I mean, that was just nauseating. And one thing he forgot, since he knows no history, is we already did that during the Korean War. We razed every North Korean city to the ground with firebombing and incendiaries. And it still didn’t work. They still fought us to a stalemate. There’s no military solution in Korea. We should have recognized that in 1953.

AMY GOODMAN: What is being eviscerated right now is the State Department. It doesn’t get as much attention, but there have been alarms going off for a while now that the diplomatic corps, the highest levels of the State Department, are—basically, people are leaving. They’re not being replaced. Can you talk about what would be a diplomatic solution, what you could see, that President Trump certainly has not gone down the path of, but also President Obama and before that, what could lead to peace in Korea? And would it mean a united Korea, North and South?

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, I mean, Trump went to East Asia without an undersecretary, or whatever they call it, assistant secretary, for East Asian affairs, which is the highest position for that region in the State Department. I don’t think there’s ever been a president on an East Asian trip without that crucial position being filled. Tillerson doesn’t even care about the State Department, in spite of being the head of the State Department. And you’re right. I mean, it’s been gutted. The expertise is just flying out the window on any number of issues.

What would solve the Korean problem—and it’s important to say, you know, to put this alongside the horrible specter of nuclear war—is for the U.S. to agree to freeze its own huge military exercises in South Korea in return for a freeze on North Korean testing of its missiles and atomic bombs. That’s a so-called freeze-for-freeze proposal, that, for example, former Secretary of Defense William Perry supports. The Chinese support it. It’s not clear that the North Koreans support it, but we haven’t tried. And then, once that freeze is in place, to open diplomatic relations with North Korea.

It’s important to understand that diplomacy is not something you do among friends, although you do it. Diplomacy arose in world history to deal with enemies. We’ve had no diplomatic relations with North Korea for 72 years. And it hasn’t hurt them any more than the sanctions. Or it’s hurt them, but it is something that could easily be remedied if the U.S. sent an ambassador to Pyongyang, whereupon we might finally get some influence over this regime. They have wanted diplomatic relations with the United States for 25 years. And Mr. Perry, when he was running the so-called Perry process for Bill Clinton, new negotiations and diplomacy with North Korea from 1998 to 2000, said, you know, two things that are absolutely true: One, we should establish diplomatic relations with Pyongyang; and, number two, their nuclear weapons and missiles are for deterrence.

And if I can just say one more thing about that: In the middle of the summer, the North Koreans started saying—and Kim Jong-un said this—that they’re building their deterrent toward an endpoint that is approaching soon. In other words, an endpoint that would allow them to feel comfortable that they have a significant deterrent, but they’re not going to go ahead and build an entire arsenal of ICBMs and nuclear weapons. They want to be able to defend themselves. And that was a clear signal, finally picked up by Joel Wit in The New York Times yesterday, a clear signal that North Korea would like to get involved in diplomacy once it feels that its deterrent is secure. They have not tested any missiles or bombs now for two months, or almost two months. I think the last one was September 15th. So, that’s also a signal that they’re ready for diplomacy.

And when you put those relatively modest steps alongside the catastrophic nature of a new war in Korea, it just seems to me the overwhelming choice is to start talking to North Korea and stop treating them like a criminal and a pariah and calling them names, which only has the effect of verifying to the North Korean public that their leadership has been right all along: The U.S. just wants to destroy North Korea.

AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Cumings, I want to thank you for being with us, just back from Seoul, South Korea, professor of history at University of Chicago, author of a number of books on Korea, like Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History and North Korea: Another Country. Sixty percent of the State Department’s equivalent of four-star generals are gone, according to new data from the American Foreign Service Association, the professional organization for America’s diplomatic corps. The numbers reveal American diplomacy, the backbone of U.S. global influence, is in a state of near collapse.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, President Trump, after Vietnam, will go to the Philippines before coming home. Stay with us.

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