Tim Shorrock in Mokpo, South Korea at Sewol Ferry wreck site, 2017 (Stephen Wunrow)
By Tim Shorrock | May 16, 2018 Originally posted in Dispatch Korea
Five days ago, after reading stories in the Korean press about the latest US-South Korean military exercises called “Max Thunder,” I tweeted out a warning that the strategic weapons being deployed might set off red flags in Pyongyang.
I’m a little surprised about the scale of these exercises, which include F-22s and B-52s from Guam. And I’ve even more surprised by North Korea’s silence about them. https://t.co/0Gu3B5McEv
— Tim Shorrock (@TimothyS) May 11, 2018
Why was I surprised? Because Kim Jong Un, in his preliminary meetings leading up to his April 27 summit with Moon Jae-in, had said that North Korea would not object to “normal” US-South Korean military exercises. That was widely understood in South Korea to mean that he would accept the drills as long as they didn’t include “strategic” weapons such as B-1B and B-52 bombers, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, all of which had taken part in earlier exercises and were viewed by the Kim government as both provocative and threatening.
So when I saw reports in the Korean media that the “Max Thunder” air exercises were to include both B-52s from Guam and advanced F-22s stationed in Japan, I wondered why we hadn’t heard anything critical from Pyongyang about them.
Well, yesterday we did. Late Tuesday afternoon in Washington, South Korea’s Yonhap News Service issued a bulletin: North Korea “said Wednesday it is canceling high-level talks with South Korea and threatened to pull out of a summit with the United States over the allies’ ongoing military exercises.” This immediately set off a firestorm in the US media. Even before reading the official North Korean statements that the Yonhap report was based on, cable news leapt on the news as proof that 1) the Trump-Kim Summit, set for Singapore on June 12, may not happen after all, and 2) the North Koreans were up to their old tricks again.
One of the first out of the gate was MSNBC, where daytime host Katy Tur declared that Trump’s Korea diplomacy was “unravelling.” To buttress her point, she brought on Jeremy Bash, a former high-ranking Pentagon and National Security Council official from the Obama administration, to argue that North Korea, by criticizing the US-ROK exercises, was trying to force the United States out of the region.
“The withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula,” he declared, “is something the North Koreans want, but is not something the United States should give, and not something the South Koreans should abide by either.” As for the military exercises, he continued, “we’re not going to stop those either. Those are critically important to our deterrence…We will not leave Asia just because Kim Jong Un says we should.” It would be better “to have no deal at all than to have the United States withdraw from Asia.”
This, of course, was nonsense: North Korea, in its discussions with the Moon government this year, has actually said it might accept the presence of US forces in South Korea if there was a peace agreement ending the Korean War (and naturally, MSNBC neglected to mention that Bash, a major hawk on Korea, is a partner with former CIA Director R. James Woolsey in the Paladin Capital Group, which invests heavily in the military industrial complex).
Later, on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, MSNBC brought on Andrea Mitchell, NBC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, to explain how “predictable” North Korea’s statement was and that it solidified her own skepticism that Trump should “never have leapt at this summit when it was first presented” by South Korea. It was a repeat of MSNBC’s meltdown when the summit was announced in March. On CNN and everywhere else, it was the same message: North Korea can never be trusted.
Amazingly, Fox got it right, bringing on Senator Rand Paul to explain that the US military exercises are indeed provocative.
Why is @Fox the only network making sense right now? Sen. Paul is correct – it would be no sweat for the US to keep its B-52s out of its military drills at this time. And it would go a long way. This is not a one-way street. https://t.co/0N3LXqmzmi
— Tim Shorrock (@TimothyS) May 15, 2018
Clarity about North Korea’s position began to emerge when journalists in Korea and China began tweeting out the official KCNA statements that Yonhap had been quoting from.
The official English report from KCNA is out: pic.twitter.com/4Qyq9Zvsa6
— Martyn Williams (@martyn_williams) May 15, 2018
And here it is: the English-language translation of N. Korea’s latest statement, taking aim pretty clearly at John Bolton. pic.twitter.com/Utl8vYStVB
— Jonathan Cheng (@JChengWSJ) May 16, 2018
Pyongyang, it turned out, was concerned about two things: the possibility of B-52s showing up in Korean skies during a period of intense peace diplomacy, and the recent statements by John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, that the US would attempt to impose a Libya-type solution on North Korea.
As Anna Fifield reported in the Washington Post on the exercises:
The two-week-long Max Thunder drills between the two countries’ air forces, an annual event that began Friday and involves about 100 warplanes, including B-52 bombers and F-15K jets, have clearly struck a nerve. “The United States will also have to undertake careful deliberations about the fate of the planned North Korea-U.S. summit in light of this provocative military ruckus jointly conducted with the South Korean authorities,” the KCNA report said.
And as Jonathan Cheng reported in the Wall Street Journal on Bolton:
The North Korean statement focused its ire on Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, who has called for Pyongyang to turn over its nuclear arsenal to the U.S. and commit to “irreversible” disarmament. It cautioned Mr. Trump that if he follows Mr. Bolton’s lead, “he will be recorded as more tragic and unsuccessful president than his predecessors, far from his ambition to make unprecedented success.”
The Journal then turned to Bolton and Libya:
On Wednesday, Pyongyang expressed its disdain for what it called a “Libya mode” of dealing. Mr. Bolton helped reach a deal with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2003 that gave up its nuclear program. Gadhafi was ousted and killed in 2011 during the Arab Spring. North Korea said it had never sought “economic compensation and benefit” in exchange for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal, throwing into question a core pillar of North Korea nuclear diplomacy stretching back to the early 1990s.
But in terms of denuclearization and what that might cost Trump:
Pyongyang didn’t make clear what kind of a deal it wants in lieu of economic inducements. Some experts say the North is likely to want security concessions, such as the scaling back of U.S. military exercises with South Korea, a drawdown of the 28,500 American troops on the Korean Peninsula and even the removal of the U.S. nuclear security guarantee for South Korea.
The Journal then quoted Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington: “North Korea has reasserted its standard position as a condition for talks: denuclearization as a protracted negotiation that requires security concessions from the alliance, not just economic payoffs.”
In other words, this was not Armageddon again, but an attempt by the North to assert itself at a critical time in the peace process make clear that it has its own interests to protect, and let Trump know that it will not just lie down and surrender. For years, and particularly over the last year, it has said over and over that it is willing to talk about denuclearization, but will act only when it believes that the United States had dropped its “hostile policy,” which in its view includes not only provocative military exercises but attempts at regime change as well as sanctions.
By Wednesday morning, after intense discussions between South Korean and US officials, it looked like a compromise had been reached on the exercises: the B-52s simply won’t take part. Yonhap again:
Contrary to the original plan, nuclear-capable U.S. B-52 bombers will not participate in the ongoing combined air drills between South Korea and the United States, a military source said Wednesday. “In the Max Thunder exercise that began on Friday, the U.S. F-22 stealth fighters have already participated, while the B-52 has yet to join,” the source said on condition of anonymity. “B-52 will not take part in the exercise, which runs through May 25.”
Around 10 AM, CNN reported that the White House was playing down both Bolton’s role in Korea policy and the possibility of a summit collapse:
Referring to the Libya comparison, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that she hadn’t “seen that as part of any discussions so I’m not aware that that’s a model that we’re using. “I haven’t seen that that’s a specific thing. I know that that comment was made. There’s not a cookie cutter model on how this would work.”
She continued, “This is the President Trump model. He’s going to run this the way he sees fit. We’re 100% confident, as we’ve said many times before, as I’m sure you’re all aware, he’s the best negotiator and we’re very confident on that front.”
Later on Trump himself chimed in during his daily banter with the media: “We haven’t seen anything. We haven’t heard anything. We will see what happens.” But there were no early morning tweets warning darkly about the collapse of the summit, as some Koreans had feared. Everything was apparently back on track.
In fact, as Politico pointed out, the real split on North Korea may be between Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo:
The key to understanding the [Trump] team is the relationship between Bolton and Pompeo. Most observers see the new secretary of state and national security adviser as two peas in a pod—hard-liners who will implement Trump’s vision and combat the bureaucracy. Some say it is a “war Cabinet.” But a closer look at their backgrounds, worldviews and ambitions suggests that they might be destined for rivalry.
Significantly, the White House basically admitted these differences to the New York Times this afternoon:
American officials acknowledged that the North appeared to be seeking to exploit a gap in the administration’s messages about North Korea — between the hard-line views of the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, and the more conciliatory tone of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has met twice with Mr. Kim in Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for the summit.
In a recent television interview, Mr. Bolton said the precedent for the North Korea negotiations should be Libya, which agreed to box up its entire nuclear program and ship it out of the country. Mr. Bolton said North Korea should receive no benefits, including the lifting of sanctions, until it had surrendered its entire nuclear infrastructure.
Mr. Pompeo, by contrast, put the emphasis on the American investment that would flow into North Korea if it agreed to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. He, too, said that the North would have to agree to “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” the technical shorthand used by the administration to describe its bargaining position with Pyongyang.
And there was this:
Some officials suggested that Mr. Trump needed to rein in Mr. Bolton, though they expressed few qualms about the White House’s broader strategy. Officials noted that the United States had not made any concessions to Mr. Kim, beyond agreeing to the meeting itself. Mr. Kim has agreed to stop nuclear and missile tests and to blow up an underground nuclear site in the presence of foreign journalists.
“The president is ready if the meeting takes place,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, told Fox News on Wednesday. “And if it doesn’t, we will continue the maximum pressure campaign that has been ongoing.”
But on Wednesday evening, NBC Nightly News was still at it, framing the story as another example of North Korea’s untrustworthiness and raising doubts again about the upcoming summit. To make his case, reporter Peter Alexander hauled in the perpetually wrong (and totally predictable) China hawk Gordon M. Chang from The Daily Beast. He said, among other absurdities, that North Korea’s objections to the military exercises and Bolton’s Libya policies were just “another page from his playbook.” (How the discredited Chang, who has been predicting for nearly a decade the coming collapse of both China and North Korea, gets on national television so much is beyond me. But reporters can always count on him to parrot the current hardline.)
So what’s the lesson from all this? For the most part – as I outlined in a recent feature for The Nation – the US media appears desperate to undo the Korea peace process. Nothing North Korea says, it seems, even its complaints about US policy, is seen as legitimate. And at the the first sign of North Korea asserting itself, the media immediately goes to its stable of “experts,” like Chang and Bash, who are really experts in group-think but know very little about what’s happening in either North or South Korea (or the White House, for that matter).
So it’s obvious that the upcoming summit is going to be a real negotiation, and the Trump team is going to have to come prepared to offer real incentives – including security guarantees, an end to provocative military drills, and political and economic normalization – for Kim Jong Un to agree to do away with his nuclear program once and for all, as he’s said he will do if the conditions are right. I’m looking forward to being in Singapore and bringing you the unvarnished word on what unfolds.
UPDATE: Some good news on public opinion about the summit:
— Patrick McEachern (@ptmceachern) May 16, 2018