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The North Korean Debate in the Age of Trump

avatar by Alon Levkowitz

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US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un shake hands after signing documents during a summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore June 12, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

The Korean conflict has divided more than the two Koreas. It has also prompted the creation of opposing “blame narratives” among scholars, policymakers, and journalists. The election of Donald Trump and the 2018 Singapore summit between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un challenged those narratives and forced some of the actors to reconsider their political agendas.

For many years, discussion of the Korean conflict was divided between two main narratives that were influenced by the Cold War — as well as by the divisions between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans.

North Korea (the DPRK) was generally portrayed in the West as evil, while South Korea and the US were presented as moderate-rational states seeking solutions for the Korean Peninsula — solutions that the DPRK was not willing to accept.

Researchers, policymakers, and journalists who wrote favorably about the DPRK or who questioned the premise that North Korea should always be blamed, were perceived as pro-Communist, anti-American, or pro-Pyongyang. The dominant narrative in most of the academic world coincided with the South Korean-US narrative, not the North Korean one.

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The 1994 US-North Korea Agreed Framework is a case in point. The agreement was seen by many as an attempt by Washington to prevent a new conflict on the Korean Peninsula. And the failure of the Agreed Framework to prevent Pyongyang’s nuclearization opened up a debate about which administration was to blame.

On the one hand, conservative scholars and Republican policymakers insisted that North Korea had cheated after signing the Agreed Framework, and blamed the Clinton administration for advancing a naïve policy towards Pyongyang on the nuclear issue. Liberal scholars and Democratic policymakers, on the other hand, said blame should fall on the George W. Bush administration, which decided not to implement the Agreed Framework and in so doing, allegedly jeopardized the attempt to prevent the nuclearization of North Korea. The two narratives followed the Republican-Democrat division.

The election of Donald Trump revived the North Korean debate, but the narratives and political divisions grew more vague. The militant rhetoric of Kim Jong-un and Trump alarmed Trump’s many critics. Doubts were raised about his North Korea policy, and fears were expressed that he would lead the Peninsula to a new war. In some of those reports, Kim Jong-un was depicted as a rational, defensive, realistic leader facing a threat from the US.

The “narrative crisis” came after the 2018 Singapore summit between Kim Jong-un and Trump. President Trump — who had been perceived by many as the one who might drag the region to a new war — met with the leader of North Korea, something no acting US president before him had done. In the past, there had been attempts to organize meetings between North Korean leaders and US presidents, but those meetings never took place because Washington perceived them as a reward for Pyongyang that it had not yet earned.

The agreement that Kim Jong-un and Trump signed at the Singapore summit has huge loopholes and is a challenge for both Democrats and Republicans to come to terms with. Had President Obama or President Clinton signed the same agreement with Kim Jong-un, the Republican Party, John Bolton, and other conservative policy makers would have criticized it — not only for giving Pyongyang more carrots than sticks, but for legitimizing Kim without getting a concrete deal in advance. But the agreement challenged liberal Democrats as well. President Trump, a Republican, is pursuing a policy that they might believe should have been implemented by previous Democratic presidents. Should they therefore support his policy? Or should they oppose it solely on the grounds that it came from Trump, a Republican?

President Trump unwittingly sparked a change in the debate on US-North Korea relations and muddied the blame narrative, laying bare a striking shift in political divisions among the players.

Dr. Alon Levkowitz, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is an expert on East Asian security, the Korean Peninsula, and Asian international organizations.

This article was originally published by the BESA Center.

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