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North and South Korean Leaders Agree to Direct Negotiations as Trump Provokes Kim Jong-un on Twitter

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President Trump tweets that his “nuclear button” is “much bigger & more powerful” than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s. Meanwhile, North and South Korea have opened lines of communication, saying they are open to direct negotiations. We speak with Bruce Cumings, professor of history at the University of Chicago, author of “North Korea: Another Country.”

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show with North Korea. President Trump took to Twitter this morning to take credit for renewed communications between North and South Korea. Trump tweeted, quote, “With all of the failed 'experts' weighing in, does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total 'might' against the North. Fools, but talks are a good thing!”

This comes after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered the reopening of a hotline with South Korea’s leaders, bringing the biggest thaw in relations between the countries in two years. The overture came after South Korean President Moon Jae-in said he’s open to talks with the North next week in the so-called truce village in the Demilitarized Zone.

Earlier this week, President Trump drew international attention when he tweeted a threat to North Korea that was steeped in sexual bravado, writing, quote, “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the 'Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.' Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” unquote. During a press conference on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders addressed questions about Trump’s taunting of the North Korean leader.

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I don’t think that it’s taunting to stand up for the people of this country. I think what’s dangerous is to ignore the continued threats. If the previous administration had done anything and dealt with North Korea, dealt with Iran, instead of sitting by and doing nothing, we wouldn’t have to clean up their mess now.

REPORTER: But you acknowledge that it’s a taunting tweet—


REPORTER: Sarah, it’s a taunting tweet to say that he has a larger nuclear button than Kim Jong-un.


AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s tweet came after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared his nation a fully fledged nuclear power Monday, saying in a televised New Year’s Day speech he was prepared to launch a nuclear attack against his enemies, including South Korea, Japan or the United States.

KIM JONG-UN: [translated] The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, and a nuclear button is always on my desk. This is reality, not a threat.

AMY GOODMAN: Kim said North Korea would now focus on mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment.

For more, we’re joined in Chicago by Bruce Cumings, professor of history at the University of Chicago, 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! Why don’t we start off with the breaking news this week of communications being opened between South and North Korea? What does this mean, and the possibility that as early as next week they will somehow meet at truce village in the Demilitarized Zone?

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, it’s very important, and particularly the tone of Kim Jong-un’s statement, which was very conciliatory toward the South and was followed up by a high official who was even more conciliatory, talking about North Korea’s hopes for the South Korean Winter Olympics going well. And, of course, Kim Jong-un offered to send a delegation to the Olympics. This is in great contrast to, for example, the 1988 Olympics, which the North Koreans tried to disrupt with terrorist attacks. So, it’s a very good sign.

And I would add that Kim Jong-un did say he had a big button with a lot of nuclear weapons, but he very clearly said that North Korean nuclear weapons are for defensive purposes and would not be used unless North Korea was attacked. And secondly, he said something that North Korean officials have been saying for the last six months without a lot of attention. And that is words to the effect that their nuclear program is nearly completed, which would mean they don’t have to test so much. They tested a great deal in 2017, particularly missiles, and then a very large H-bomb test last September. So, I think, on all three counts, this was generally a welcome statement, a conciliatory statement.

President Trump’s tweet this morning is trying to take credit for these talks going forward. That’s fine. The fact is, the Trump administration was very opposed to President Moon Jae-in of South Korea’s proposals for talks. The North—the Trump administration position is that there can be no talks until North Korea commits to denuclearization. That’s their only hole card, so they’re not going to do that before talks open. I would give a lot of credit to President Moon in Seoul for opening up these talks next January 9th, next week, in spite of tremendous opposition, not to mention almost daily provocations coming from President Trump.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And this morning, there was a call on that hotline. The South Koreans reached out to the North. Do we know anything about the content of that call?

BRUCE CUMINGS: No, I actually—it was all I could do to get through The New York Times a bit before coming down here early in the morning, so I don’t know what the content was. But that line was closed two years ago, in the context of then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye shutting down a very large industrial zone just across the DMZ in North Korea, the Kaesong Industrial Zone, where about 60,000 North Koreans were working for mostly South Korean firms. And it was the last and biggest fruit of really more than a decade of attempts at reconciliation between North and South. So I have hopes that not just this communication line, but that export zone will be reopened soon. I don’t know that, but I hope it.

AMY GOODMAN: U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Tuesday, North Korea might be preparing for another missile test, and warned such a move would necessitate tougher steps against Pyongyang.

NIKKI HALEY: As we hear reports that North Korea might be preparing for another missile test, I hope that does not happen. But if it does, we must bring even more measures to bear on the North Korean regime. The civilized world must remain united and vigilant against the rogue state’s development of a nuclear arsenal. We will never accept a nuclear North Korea. … We won’t take any of the talks seriously if they don’t do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea. We consider this to be a very reckless regime. We don’t think we need a Band-Aid, and we don’t think we need to smile and take a picture. We think that we need to have them stop nuclear weapons, and they need to stop it now. So, North Korea can talk with anyone they want, but the U.S. is not going to recognize it or acknowledge it, until they agree to ban the nuclear weapons that they have.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can respond to this, Bruce Cumings, and respond to the U.S. setting preconditions? But this is direct negotiations between South and North Korea. And then talk about the tweet of Trump talking about his button bigger than—bigger than the North Korean leader’s and also his taking credit for this coming together.

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, I think you’re right that this initiative came from the two Koreas. The U.S. wasn’t involved, as far as we know, in this initiative. And the unfortunate fact is that not just the Trump administration, but many, many administrations, going back decades—excuse me—have not wanted the two Koreas to be alone together. They always want the U.S. in a supervisory role over South Korea. This morning, a high State Department official in the Obama administration was quoted as saying, “South Korea needs to be on a tight leash.” That kind of condescending crap is just coming out of the mouths of a bipartisan coalition of American officials for a long, long time. President Moon is a very experienced politician. He was chief of staff to Roh Moo-hyun, who did the deepest reconciliation with North Korea when he was in office. And I think the U.S. should trust Moon Jae-in to conduct these talks and make whatever deals might be possible with North Korea.

As to Trump’s tweet, like everything else, even the 17 inches of snow that Boston is going to get, that Trump essentially says, you know, it’s his doing. No matter what it is, Donald Trump is snapping his fingers and making everything happen. But the hidden lining in that statement is that Trump supports the talks. He said right at the end that he supports the talks. Talks are good. I’m not a psychiatrist, and so I don’t know why Donald Trump, throughout his campaign and as president, has constantly showed his Freudian insecurities about the size of his whatever. In this case, he’s basically bringing Kim Jong-un up to his level or bringing himself down to Kim Jong-un’s level, but, in any case, focusing attention on North Korea in a way that no previous president would ever do. It’s childish, about a possible nuclear war that could literally destroy the planet. And I wish I knew what the North Koreans think of it, but I would guess that after all these months they’re starting not to take him very seriously. Last summer, they were asking Republicans in Washington, you know, “What does Trump mean when he says 'fire and fury' or he’s going to 'totally destroy' us?” Because in North Korea, every statement coming out of the government is carefully vetted, right up the line, whereas Trump isn’t vetted at all. So, it’s a dangerous situation, but it also demeans the United States and, as I said, brings Trump basically to Kim Jong-un’s level.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, given the fact that Trump has been tweeting as much as he has, activists in San Francisco are questioning Twitter’s enforcement of its policy against violent threats. After Trump used the platform to taunt North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, members of a group called Resistance SF projected an image on the outside of Twitter headquarters in San Francisco on Wednesday directed at the Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, which read, “@jack is #complicit.” A spokesperson for Twitter said Trump did not violate its policy when the president boasted that his “nuclear button” was “bigger & more powerful” than Un’s. Twitter’s rules page reads, quote, “We consider violent threats to be explicit statements of one’s intent to kill or inflict serious physical harm against another person. … Please note that wishing or hoping that someone experiences serious physical harm, making vague threats, or threatening less serious forms of physical harm would not fall under this specific policy,” Twitter wrote. So, Bruce Cumings, can you respond to that and what you think, if anything, should be done to prevent Trump from escalating the situation between the U.S. and North Korea?

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, his latest statements, the ones yesterday about how big his button was, might violate obscenity statutes. But certainly, his very bellicose statements last summer about totally destroying North Korea would seem to be outside Twitter’s guidelines. North Korea was totally destroyed by the U.S. during the Korean War in a three-year air campaign that left almost nothing standing. And every North Korean is taught about this. They’re very bitter about it. But what you can say to Trump is, we totally destroyed North Korea already and still didn’t win the war. So, it’s very irresponsible talk.

But I imagine just about everybody in the White House, including the custodians cleaning his bathrooms, would like to grab his Twitter and throw it as far—his iPhone, and throw it as far away as they can, because he’s unsettled relations with our friends and allies—and our enemies—time and time again. I mean, by lining up with the Iranian demonstrators against the ayatollahs, he puts them in a position where the ayatollahs can easily claim they’re foreign agents. He blasted Pakistan for coddling terrorists and protecting them inside the country. Pakistan has been doing that for decades, and the U.S. has known all about it and has tolerated it for other reasons. So, he’s basically a kind of wrecking crew. But in his case, the mallet or the wreck—the wrecking crew is Twitter. I think we’d all be really happy if Twitter would just cut him off, but that’s obviously not going to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: And we just have 30 seconds, but what could come of these direct talks between North and South Korea?

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, I think it’s very probable that a North Korean delegation will come to Pyeongchang for the Olympics that begin on February 9th, and that may include athletes who would participate in some non-official form. There were two North Korean skaters who qualified for the Olympics in Canada some weeks ago, but apparently the North Koreans didn’t put in an application or failed to meet a deadline or something, so that they can’t participate as Olympic athletes.

But I think it will be a time when the world can breathe a sigh of relief that at least there won’t be missiles or vicious tweets going off during the Olympics and that it could be a start to things like reopening the Kaesong zone and just reducing the terrible tension that has been wracking the Korean Peninsula ever since Donald Trump was inaugurated.

AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Cumings, we want to thank you for being with us, professor of history at University of Chicago. Among his books, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History and North Korea: Another Country.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Norway says it’s cutting off weapon sales to Saudi Arabia because of the U.S.-backed Saudi bombing campaign against Yemen. Stay with us.

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