Korea expert discusses looming U.S.-North Korea summit

Eugene Park, director of the James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies, examines the forthcoming meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korea Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.  

Eugene Park Penn Korea

One day in May or early June, President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with North Korea Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un at an unprecedented summit to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program.

The high-level meeting, which will be the first between a sitting American president and a North Korean supreme leader, comes less than a year after Trump threatened North Korea “with fire and fury like the world has never seen” in response to the country’s nuclear tests, and the two traded personal insults, with Trump calling Kim “Rocket Man” and Kim calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”

Tensions have since cooled and secret talks begun. Earlier this month, Trump said the summit has the potential to reset the relationship between the two adversaries, and will be “a very exciting thing for the world.”

Born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in southern California, Eugene Park is the director of Penn’s James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies, which leads the University’s Korea-related initiatives and supports the study of Korea at Penn and in the community.

Park, also the Korea Foundation Associate Professor of History in the School of Arts and Sciences, specializes in the sociopolitical history of Korea since the 17th century, and also has extensive knowledge about the military history of the peninsula.

Penn Today sat down with Park in Williams Hall to talk the forthcoming summit, what each side wants, why they are talking now, provocations and reprisals, why Kim went to China, and if North Korea would really give up its nuclear weapons.

First and foremost, do you think the summit is something that will actually happen?

Yes. Both sides have too much invested in this for it to fail. They will do what they can to meet and, moreover, try to produce something positive.

It sounds like you’re optimistic.

Yes, cautiously optimistic.

From your perspective, what do the two sides want? Trump wants North Korea to give up its nuclear program. What does North Korea want?

Kim wants a permanent, irretractable guarantee of his regime’s survival. What that means in more practical terms is a formal end of the Korean War through a peace treaty, replacing the current armistice agreement. Trump wants to make history by solving a security issue that no predecessor of his was able to solve.

Do you think Trump’s bombastic rhetoric has been a factor in the U.S. and North Korea agreeing to talk?

It’s not so much about Trump’s rhetoric as it is the reality of the tremendous power differentials between North Korea’s military capacity and capabilities and America’s. Of course, this is nothing new. Perhaps for the majority of Americans, the current ‘North Korea problem’ goes back to the 1990s, when the world became aware of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. Perhaps for older generations of Americans, the problem goes as far back as the Korean War in the 1950s, which, according to such a view, began with the communist aggression. But from the perspective of a historian such as myself, the situation has a long, complex history. It is fundamentally a legacy of Japanese colonial empire, the expansion of which the United States facilitated a century ago at the expense of the lives of tens of millions of Chinese, Koreans, and other Asians during the ensuing decades. Not only did the U.S. eventually pay the price dearly by fighting against Japan during World War II, subsequently the U.S. and the Soviet Union divided Korea as a spoil of the war and established two mutually antagonistic Korean states that fought the Korean War, which invited Chinese intervention when the pro-U.S. United Nations and South Korean troops advanced toward China.

What is it about the current environment that makes now the right time for both sides to meet?

North Korea has achieved enough strength through its nuclear weapons program to be taken more seriously as a bargaining partner by the United States. In other words, North Korea has achieved its primary goal of getting the U.S. to sit down and talk very seriously. Another factor is the American public’s perception that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program cannot be allowed to continue. So in terms of both the perceptions and the power dynamics between North Korea and the United States, we’ve reached a milestone. Moreover, by coincidence, both countries are now led by individuals who are less bound by conventions or traditions, and they seem willing to make some bold moves for a permanent solution. After all, Trump’s trajectory to the presidency has defied conventional wisdom on American politics. And Kim was educated and grew up in Switzerland.

What did you think of the back-and-forth name-calling?

I didn’t read too much into it. It reflects Trump’s antics. The back-and-forth also typifies the North Korean public propaganda and mode of communication.

Do you think North Korea would ever really attack the United States?

No. That would mean self-destruction for the Kim Jong-un regime, and it is impossible that he is unaware of this.

Likewise, do you think the U.S. would attack North Korea?

Extremely unlikely. There’s no way the United States, or South Korea, can strike North Korea without risking dire consequences for South Korea. About 25 million people live in its capital city, Seoul, and the surrounding region, and the city is within North Korea’s field artillery firing range just to the north of the DMZ. Also, including about 28,500 troops, roughly 200,000 Americans live in South Korea, a country smaller than Pennsylvania in size. Moreover, Japan has every reason to not want such a conflict, because Japan is within North Korea’s ballistic missile range.

What did you think when Kim went to China?

Both South Korea and North Korea want to keep their major allies informed and publicly demonstrate solidarity with their major allies. It is to the interest of each Korea to not make its major ally feel left out. If, for some reason, the Trump-Kim summit were to fail, then North Korea would have no choice other than to fall back on its traditional ally and lifeline, China. At the same token, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, who is from the more liberal of the two major parties of the country, is ideologically committed to lasting peace on the peninsula through genuine reconciliation with North Korea, and he knows that South Korea alone cannot achieve this by extending an olive branch to North Korea. South Korea needs America’s understanding and support. And North Korea is not going to take South Korea’s peace gestures seriously without America’s endorsement of South Korea’s effort.

Do you think Kim going to China strengthens his bargaining position?

Yes. Again, it serves as a mutual reassurance, a reaffirmation of the traditional special relationship bond between China and North Korea.

A lot of people seemed to be surprised that Kim went to China. Were you surprised?

Not at all. It was the most logical thing for both China and North Korea to do in preparation for the upcoming Moon-Kim summit in late April and then the Trump-Kim summit in May or June.

South Korea has the 10th-largest military budget in the world (around $37 billion), while North Korea has the 26th ($7.5 billion). With such a large and high-powered military, why does South Korea need America’s help?

That’s a highly divisive issue in South Korea. Conservatives want to keep the U.S. involved. They see 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea as a critical element for national security. Also, they hope that presence of about 200,000 Americans who live in South Korea should make the U.S. more committed to helping South Korea in the event of a North Korean attack. In contrast, the traditionally liberal South Korean position on the U.S. troop presence is that it’s shameful and, as a matter of principle, a sovereign national-state should defend itself. Also, the liberals see the U.S. troop presence as a stumbling block for lasting peace in Korea with blessing of not just the U.S. but also China.

Why is China allied and concerned with what happens in North Korea?

The American troop presence in South Korea is an important reason why China is wary of the idea of North Korea’s collapse or Korea’s unification under a pro-U.S. government. What most Americans fail to understand is that in the late 19th century, Western and Japanese aggressions stripped China of its status as a world power dating, arguably, as far back as the seventh century, and that China is now reclaiming what it views as its rightful position. One analogy I use to explain this to my students is how, for at least a century, the United States has regarded the Caribbean Sea as its turf. The famous Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated this, as John F. Kennedy pushed back on the Soviet Union, and Khrushchev backed down. If America can view the Caribbean this way, then what about China and the South China Sea? The mainstream American media tends to portray China’s military build-up, posturing, and territorial disputes in the South China Sea as unwarranted, but I explain to my students that China’s historical influence and presence in the South China Sea goes at least as far back as the 16th century before being eclipsed by Western and Japanese colonialist expansion. Of course, I’m not trying to justify any sort of aggressive gestures by any power, but I think the American public needs to keep that piece of history in mind.

Do you think North Korea would give up its nuclear program as part of any deal?

Yes, but only if the terms and conditions offered by the U.S. are such that (A) Kim Jong-un will feel secure about his present hold on power and the prospect of his family as the ruling dynasty, and (B), if North Korea can not only rebuild its economy, but also achieve significant growth so that it can become more like a country like China, Vietnam, or even Singapore, all with a political system of more or less one-party rule but also have a market economy. Reportedly, Kim Jong-un is very interested in these models.