founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing for peace in Korea. Her recent article for Foreign Policy in Focus is titled "Korean Women Take On Trump"
professor of history at the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books on Korea, including Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History and North Korea: Another Country.
The political upheaval in South Korea comes shortly after North Korea test-fired several ballistic missiles. In response, the Trump administration announced it would deploy a missile defense system to South Korea. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of South Korean and U.S. troops, backed by warships and warplanes, are currently engaging in a massive military exercise. Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that the U.S. and North Korea are like two "accelerating trains coming toward each other." He called on both sides to de-escalate tensions. We speak with University of Chicago professor Bruce Cumings and Christine Ahn, founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ.
AMY GOODMAN: The political upheaval in South Korea comes days after North Korea test-fired several ballistic missiles. In response, the Trump administration announced it would deploy a missile defense system to South Korea. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of South Korean and U.S. troops, backed by warships and warplanes, are currently engaging in a massive military exercise. Last week, Chinese officials called for both an end to North Korea’s nuclear program and an end to joint U.S.-South Korea military drills. This is the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
WANG YI: [translated] As a first step, North Korea should suspend nuclear activity, and the U.S. and South Korea should also suspend large-scale military drills, and, with both sides stopping, avoid the current security dilemma and make all sides to return to the negotiating table. Later, based on a dual-track strategy, we will realize denuclearization and establish a peace mechanism on the peninsula to simultaneously and equally resolve the concerns of all parties.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. And we’re speaking to two guests about the escalating tensions between the Koreas and the United States and China. Bruce Cumings is with us, professor of history at University of Chicago, and Christine Ahn, founder and international coordinator of Women Cross the DMZ. What are you most concerned about right now, as this is much broader than just Korea?
CHRISTINE AHN: Well, I’m concerned that we have a situation in South Korea that is essentially a political vacuum until the next progressive president comes into power. And we have a Trump administration that has said that it’s, you know, undertaking a Korea policy review, which has ranged from he’s willing to sit down with Kim Jong-un and have a hamburger to preemptive strikes. And what really worries me is, while these military exercises may be routine, you know, the South Korean media just reported that the U.S. has deployed a team of Navy SEALs, that basically took out Osama bin Laden. You know, it includes unmanned aircraft that could basically completely destroy Pyongyang. That could be a signal. That’s one way, since there is no communication between the two countries. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Deployed where?
CHRISTINE AHN: To the Korean Peninsula as part of these regular exercises. And that’s all under this Operation Plan, you know, 5015, that includes decapitation of Pyongyang’s leader. And so, I think that there has been this perception—
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, includes decapitation of the leader?
CHRISTINE AHN: Yeah, that’s basically taking out the North Korean leader. And I think that there is a perception in this country that—that regime collapse is imminent and that all it will take is a military action to conduct it. And when has regime change ever been successful? And what would be the likelihood for the millions of South Koreans right across the DMZ and the innocent civilians? But it would engulf the entire region into a very dangerous regional conflict—Russia, China, Japan, the United States. By being part of mutual defense treaties, it will engulf the entire region. Five of those—of the top 10 countries in terms of their military capacity and defense spending are in that region. It’s a tinderbox. And so, we really need to understand that the Korean conflict is at the root of that. And so we have to really seriously pressure our government. I mean, it’s obviously—how do we, you know, pressure the Trump administration, that seems to not have a clue about Korea? But we have to. I think it’s a very dangerous situation, and we have to be very vigilant.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Professor Bruce Cumings, what about this? You have the Chinese officials issuing this warning. You have people in the United States deeply concerned that when you have a very unpopular president, and they’re having—embroiled in trouble at home, that he might want to focus attention elsewhere, on an enemy outside, and the idea that North Korea could become that country, a country that the U.S. engages militarily. Do you think there’s any possibility of this?
BRUCE CUMINGS: I actually don’t think the Trump administration can get its act together to appoint high people in the State Department, high officials in the State Department and the Pentagon. I don’t know how they can start a war in Korea or decapitate Kim Jong-un. I think the situation is actually worse, in the sense that over the last year or so there’s been a bipartisan, inside-the-Beltway consensus that most of our methods for dealing with North Korea—sanctions, cap on their tests, talking with them—those things have not worked over the years. They’re still building their arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles, and so some sort of force may be necessary, either to take out those missiles preemptively or to force an end to the Kim Jong-un regime. The Council on Foreign Relations, last October, published a paper on North Korea, where it came very close to saying the U.S. might have to use force to change the regime in North Korea. So we’re not talking about Donald Trump and a bunch of yahoos; we’re talking about a consensus in Washington.
Also, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement was very important, I think unprecedented. I’ve never heard a high Chinese official say that we’re moving toward a collision on the Korean Peninsula, that it’s like two trains rushing toward each other. Furthermore, over the weekend, William Perry, the former defense secretary and Bill Clinton’s roving ambassador for North Korea in the late ’90s, also said that he thought a train wreck was coming.
The simple way to handle this is the way Jimmy Carter did in 1994, when it looked like Bill Clinton was about to launch a preemptive attack on North Korea. And he just basically cut through all the bull in our relations with North Korea, going back decades, and flew to Pyongyang to talk to Kim Il-sung. And out of that came a complete freeze on North Korea’s plutonium facility for eight years. For eight years, they had no access to any bomb-making materials, 24/7 controls on that facility.
So, if Donald Trump wants to share a hamburger with Kim Jong-un, that’s a very good idea. But the idea of using force against North Korea, when even their artillery, 10,000 guns north of Seoul, conventional artillery, can take out a city that has a third of the South Korean population, you just really have no military option on the Korean Peninsula. But unfortunately, a lot of folks in Washington haven’t gotten that straight.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to White House spokesperson Sean Spicer speaking last week.
PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: We’re very troubled by the launch of missiles that have occurred from North Korea. I think that’s why the THAAD missile system that we’ve started to deploy into South Korea is so important. We’re continuing to work with the government of South Korea to—to make sure that they have the defenses necessary to protect themselves. It’s a—the deployment of the THAAD system is critical to their protection, as witnessed by this weekend’s ballistic missile test. China and the United States, in particular, both understand the threat that North Korea poses to the region. And I think that there’s areas in concern that we can work together to protect the country.
AMY GOODMAN: So, according to reports, a senior White House official says President Trump believes the greatest immediate threat to the United States is North Korea and its nuclear program. And you just heard Sean Spicer. Christine Ahn?
CHRISTINE AHN: Oh, I mean, it’s so interesting. David Sanger had a piece in The New York Times last week about the Obama administration’s secret cyberwarfare program against North Korea, because, basically, they concluded that the missile defense system is truly ineffective, and that, you know, even in the most pristine environmental or climatic conditions, that 50 percent of the tests failed. And so, I think it’s truly a testament why if—you know, there is no demand coming from South Korea. They’re not saying, "Please, give us this THAAD missile defense system." In fact, there’s massive protest in Seongju and Gimcheon, where the two potential sites are. And it’s creating havoc for South Korea-China relations, because China is obviously angered, because they view the THAAD missile defense system there as a surveillance tool. It’s not really there to block North Korean missiles. Plenty of experts have shown that it would be ineffective as a deterrence from North Korean missiles. So, it is creating a very dangerous situation for the Korean Peninsula. And I hope that there will be some possibility of creating a neutral, nuclear-free zone for the Korean Peninsula, because it has become ground zero for the geopolitical arms race between the U.S. and China.
AMY GOODMAN: Top story on Reuters right now, Professor Cumings: Japan plans to dispatch its largest warship on a three-month tour through the South China Sea, beginning in May, in its biggest show of naval force in the region since World War II. Is this in any way tied in? And also, talk about the significance of the current secretary of state, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, going now to Asia. Big controversy in the press corps is that he’s not bringing the press corps with him. Your response?
BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, why should Tillerson bring the press corps with him, when he never talks to the press? I’ve never seen anything like this situation, where a secretary of state comes into the State Department, he doesn’t appoint a bunch of undersecretaries of state—instead, he fires all the ones that are there—and then he acts as if he’s on a secret mission to do something. He has barely talked to the press at all. And when he has said anything, it’s been completely innocuous. They say he’s trying to get his feet under him and learn, learn about American foreign relations. Well, that’s good. Maybe he could convince President Trump to do the same thing. But I don’t think Tillerson’s visit is terribly important. It’s just a matter of going to South Korea and Japan to reassure them in a situation where most national security experts, whether of one party or the other, or one tendency or the other, think that North Korea is the number one or two security problem in the world.
As for the Japanese Navy sending a task force through the South China Sea, that’s, of course, to deal with a very different problem, which is China’s expansion in that South China Sea and also the East China Sea, where there have been a number of clashes and near-incidents between Japan and China. Basically, what both the Obama and the Bush, previous Bush, administrations have been trying to do is to weld South Korea, Japan and the U.S. together to contain China. And Japan, under Abe, has been more than willing to do that. That’s why I think he’s doing exactly what the Pentagon wants him to do, which is to send this task force through the South China Sea.
South Korea is a very different situation, as Christine pointed out, where it’s likely that you’ll have a progressive president come to power in 60 days. And we’ll be back where we were with Roh Moo-hyun from 2003 to 2008, who was loathed by the Bush administration. I don’t know how many conferences on anti-Americanism in South Korea I went to during that period, because whenever a South Korean leader tries to stand up and tell the U.S. no, suddenly it’s a matter of anti-Americanism. So, South Korea is in a much more difficult position in this general policy of the U.S. of trying to weld the three countries together.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end by asking about this very strange situation of the killing of the half-brother of the North Korean leader. In Malaysia, police say a pair of women used the banned chemical nerve agent VX to assassinate Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader. Kim died of a seizure on his way to a hospital from the Malaysian airport February 13th, after the women doused his face with the chemical as he was waiting to board a flight at Kuala Lumpur’s main airport. The United Nations has banned VX as a weapon of mass destruction. North Korea denies involvement in Kim’s killing, although the country is believed to have stockpiles of VX and other nerve agents. Christine, the significance of this? Now, you know, they’re saying that they’re looking for a number of North Korean agents who might have provided the VX to the women. What is the significance of this?
CHRISTINE AHN: I think there’s many more questions than answers. And if I may just outline a few of them, one is: Why did South Korean media know about this before the Malaysian authorities? If it was the nerve gas agent, why did it take the Malaysian authorities to basically sanitize the airport two weeks later? SIPRI has said they don’t think it was the nerve gas agent.
AMY GOODMAN: SIPRI being?
CHRISTINE AHN: The Stockholm Institute for Peace Research Institute. And, you know, why would North Korea—which, you know, obviously, all roads are leading to North Korea—why would they do this in a place that has basically closed-circuit TVs and that would lead it to be North Korea as the culprit? And why would it have—why would they do it at a time when North Korean—a team of the Foreign Ministry officials were about to go to the United States for Track 2 dialogues? I think North Korea is really working hard to try not to be an international pariah. Certainly, they are doing the missile tests. They do that as a message to the United States. But I think that they don’t want to be isolated. They want to join the international community. They want the sanctions to be lifted, so that they could eventually normalize. And so, it just raises a lot of questions. Why would they do this at a time when they were about to have potential talks, Track 2 dialogues, with U.S. officials?
AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Cumings, would you like to weigh in on this?
BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, I agree with Christine that it was very odd that this was done in a venue where there are all kinds of people milling around and security cameras there. When the North Koreans want to assassinate someone, they send a lone assassin, and he’s carrying poison so that if he is captured after the assassination, before he’s captured, he’ll commit suicide, and then they could deny everything and blame it on the South Korean special services. This was a very odd event. Also, it occurred in Malaysia, which is a country that had friendly relations with North Korea, one of the few non-communist advanced countries that North Koreans and Malaysians could go back and forth without visas. They’ve poisoned—if North Korea did this, which one has to assume they did. I mean, who else did it? You know, it’s basically poisoned the relations with Malaysia. And, again, it feeds into the world media image of Kim Jong-un as somebody who just chops someone’s head off when he disagrees with him, whether it’s his uncle or somebody else—in this case, his half-brother. It’s a very murky incident, and I don’t think we’ll ever get to the bottom of it, really, but we’ll probably learn a lot more than we know now.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Bruce Cumings, speaking to us from Chicago, a professor at the University of Chicago, his books include Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History and North Korea: Another Country. And thanks so much to Christine Ahn, founder of Women Cross the DMZ.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, an Environmental Protection Agency official, who founded an agency for environmental justice within the EPA a quarter of a century ago, quits over the new administration. Stay with us. We’ll speak with him.