By Branko Marcetic
As much of the world celebrates a modest step towards peace in Korea, Western pundits seem to be panicking.
On Tuesday, as Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un shook hands for their much-anticipated summit in Singapore, one Korean reporter observed a curious episode< http://www. koreaherald.com/view.php?ud= 20180612000772>. Koreans watching the scene unfold on a TV screen at a railway station in Seoul began applauding. Meanwhile, some nearby Western tourists, perturbed by this development, scratched their heads in confusion.
â€œI am actually baffled to see them clapping here,â€ said one British tourist.
Thereâ€™s perhaps no better symbol of the gulf in worldwide reactions to the summit than this episode. While South Koreans cautiously celebrated a historic step in the thawing of hostilities that have hung over them for almost seventy years, the Western media seemed to look on with alarm â€” even anger.
Hostility to the summit, much of it from Democrats and liberals< https://jacobinmag. com/2018/06/trump-north-korea- kim-negotiations-deal>, had been a staple of press coverage in the months leading up to it, often from commentators who just a few months earlier had been panicking about exactly the opposite outcome. But it reached a fever pitch over the last few days.
There was, for example, the collective< https://twitter. com/SteveSchmidtSES/status/ 1006487057034829825> hyperventilation< https:// twitter.com/GeoffRBennett/ status/1006339247958306818> over a symbolic arrangement< https://twitter. com/christinawilkie/status/ 1006343744722030594> of North Korean and US flags. There was MSNBCâ€™s Nicole Wallace, who warned< https://www.alternet. org/news-amp-politics/whole- thing-was-trumpian-head-fake- msnbcs-nicolle-wallace- explains-how-trump> that the whole summit was actually a â€œTrumpian head fake,â€ a mere artifact of Trumpâ€™s â€œmidterm strategyâ€ and his â€œget out of sitting with Bob Mueller strategy.â€ Sue Mi Terry of the defense contractorâ€“funded< https://www. csis.org/support-csis/our- donors/corporation-and-trade- association-donors> Center for Strategic and International Studies cautioned< https://twitter.com/ CSISKoreaChair/status/ 1006278197690994689> that â€œa peace treaty is not okayâ€ and should â€œcome at the end of the processâ€ because it â€œundermines the justification of our troops staying in South Korea.â€
But things really ramped up once the summit was over. The signing of the joint statement was met with near-universal< https://www. wsj.com/articles/u-s-analysts- skeptical-of-north-korea- summit-results-lack-of- details-1528808231> derision< https://www. thedailybeast.com/trumps- singapore-summit-was-a- bustfor-the-us-at-least>and skepticism< https://www. independent.co.uk/news/world/ asia/trump-kim-meeting-latest- denuclearisation-north-korea- us-nuclear-weapons-a8394566. html> from Western observers and mainstream< http://www.nj.com/ opinion/index.ssf/2018/06/how_ trump_lost_the_summit_before_ the_photographers.html> news< https://www. washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/ style/the-north-korea-summit- was-a-triumph-of-trumpian- stagecraft-and-the-media-fell- for-it/2018/06/12/0ebe2488- 6e42-11e8-bd50-b80389a4e569_ story.html?utm_term=. 64ae169ab4c9>outlets< https:// www.washingtonpost.com/news/ posteverything/wp/2018/06/12/ trump-is-everything- republicans-said-obama-was/? utm_term=.9381ee64c8fc>, citing a variety of objections: the idea that Trump had â€œlegitimizedâ€ Kim and given him a propaganda victory; that he had given too much away with little in return; that he was praising Kim too generously; that he had used the North Koreansâ€™ own rhetoric about â€œprovocativeâ€ US military exercises; and the weird and unintentionally hilarious US-made video< https://www. washingtonpost.com/news/the- fix/wp/2018/06/12/reporters- thought-this-video-was-north- korea-propaganda-it-came-from- the-white-house/?noredirect= on&utm_term=.4dd4db20d8ff> exalting the greatness of the agreement.
Much of the criticism focused on the fact that Trump had offered to suspend US and South Korean war games â€” apparently without informing the South Koreans â€” and to withdraw some troops from the country. (A regular feature of establishment anti-Trump coverage is that he is both an unhinged maniac ready to start war at any moment, and that under no circumstances should he reduce the size and scope of US military power.)
As before, however, it was liberal media that seemed particularly confused and infuriated by the agreement. Rachel Maddow, who once wrote a book< https://www. penguinrandomhouse.com/books/ 105954/drift-by-rachel-maddow/ 9780307460998/> about the US addiction to perpetual war, found a way< http://www.msnbc.com/ rachel-maddow/watch/trump- military-exercise-giveaway-to- n-korea-suits-putin-s-goals- 1254434371701?playlist= associated> to link the summit to Russia, explaining that Trumpâ€™s troop pull-out plan was actually a dangerous giveaway to Putin. â€œWhy did that happen?â€ Maddow asked about the agreement in brow-strained confusion. â€œWhat was that for?â€ Vox wrote about< https://www.vox.com/ world/2018/6/12/17452616/ trump-kim-jong-un-north-korea- summit> the â€œshockingly weak deal,â€ citing an analyst from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a neoconservative think tank< https://rightweb.irc- online.org/profile/foundation_ for_defense_of_democracies/> financed by Republican fundraisers< https://www.jta. org/2013/08/06/news-opinion/ politics/top-jewish- republicans-fund-fdd-iran- sanctions-think-tank> like Sheldon Adelson, which spent< http://www.slate.com/ articles/news_and_politics/ foreigners/2015/08/foundation_ for_the_defense_of_ democracies_inside_the_small_ pro_israel_think.html> years< https://www.nytimes.com/ 2018/05/13/us/politics/mark- dubowitz-iran-deal.html> fighting the Iran deal.
â€œThis. Is. Fucking. Nuts,â€ wrote< https://www.motherjones. com/kevin-drum/2018/06/donald- trump-abandons-south-korea/> Mother Jonesâ€™s Kevin Drum in reaction to the deal, in a column titled â€œDonald Trump Abandons South Korea.â€ Weighing the concessions Kim won against what Trump received (â€œnothingâ€), Drum determined that â€œthis whole thing looks like the same kind of train wreck dealmaking that produced the Trump Plaza Hotel.â€ The Guardianâ€™s Jonathan Freedland called< https://www. theguardian.com/commentisfree/ 2018/jun/12/trump-nuclear- north-korea-kim-jong-un> the deal â€œa historic breakthrough â€” for the Kim dynasty,â€ citing just about every boilerplate criticism so far listed. Freedland wrote that a â€œuseful way to test the dealâ€ was to imagine what Trump would have said if Obama had negotiated it â€” an odd point, given that liberals have (rightly) spent years complaining about Trumpâ€™s ignorant, bad-faith attacks on the Iran deal.
If this coverage were all one were exposed to, it would be hard to be left with any other impression than that Trump had just single-handedly sealed the doom of South Korea, and indeed the whole world. Which begs the question: Why do Koreans themselves seem surprisingly okay with it?
Seeing A Different Summit
You wouldnâ€™t know it from the vast majority of Western news coverage (with some notable exceptions< https://www. newyorker.com/news/dispatch/ south-koreans-are-still- hopeful-after-the-trump-kim- summit>), but South Koreans greeted news of the agreementâ€™s signing with optimism â€” often cautious optimism, to be sure, but optimism nonetheless. Which isnâ€™t surprising â€” 81 percent< https://www. realclearpolitics.com/ articles/2018/06/11/poll_most_ americans_south_koreans_back_ summit_137245.html> of South Koreans wanted Trump to meet with Kim, though that was not much higher than the 70 percent of Americans who felt the same.
Based on this coverage, you probably wouldnâ€™t have learned that the agreement was backed< https://www.reuters. com/article/us-northkorea-usa- un/u-n-chief-urges-support- for-u-s-north-korea-agreement- idUSKBN1J81MK> by the UN secretary general, who urged the international community to support its objectives. You wouldnâ€™t have heard, for example, from the residents< https://www.reuters. com/article/us-northkorea-usa- dandong-voxpops/residents-of- china-border-city-hope-u-s- north-korea-summit-spurs- peace-and-business- idUSKBN1J80FH> of a Chinese city on the North Korean border who expressed quiet hope about the negotiations to come. And you certainly wouldnâ€™t have heard that the summit was considered a great success by South Koreaâ€™s extremely popular< https://www. washingtonpost.com/news/ worldviews/wp/2018/05/22/what- south-koreas-moon-has-but- trump-does-not-a-sky-high- approval-rating/?noredirect= on&utm_term=.8f260cf838af> president, Moon Jae-in.
While Western news columnists stood in nearly lockstep opposition to the deal, Moon was glowing. He wore a smile< https://www.aljazeera. com/news/2018/06/korea-hopes- singapore-summit-usher-era- 180612141909101.html> as he watched the two leaders meet, and later heralded the agreement< http://www.korea. net/Government/Briefing-Room/ Presidential-Speeches/view? articleId=160172> as â€œa historic event that has helped break down the last remaining Cold War legacy on earth,â€ even as he acknowledged it was â€œjust a beginning and there may be many difficulties ahead.â€
When one looks at the statements of South Koreans themselves, itâ€™s hard to argue with a straight face that theyâ€™ve been â€œabandoned.â€ Indeed, reading President Moonâ€™s effusive statement, issued less than a day after he admitted< https://www. straitstimes.com/asia/east- asia/trump-kim-summit- sleepless-skorea-president- moon-jae-in-hopes-for-new-era- of-complete> he â€œhardly sleptâ€ the night before the summit, youâ€™d wonder how it was possible to mug for the camera and ask incredulously< http://www. msnbc.com/rachel-maddow/watch/ trump-military-exercise- giveaway-to-n-korea-suits- putin-s-goals-1254434371701? playlist=associated>, as Rachel Maddow did, â€œWhat was this summit all about?â€
Reading non-Western media reports on the summit, youâ€™d be forgiven for thinking you had dropped into another reality. Singaporean newspaper the Straits Times called the summit< https://www. straitstimes.com/singapore/ first-step-on-long-road-to- peace> the â€œfirst step on [the] long road to peace.â€ While acknowledging the dealâ€™s skimpiness in terms of specifics, the paper quoted experts< https://www. straitstimes.com/asia/east- asia/trump-kim-summit- agreement-gives-moon-jae-in- mandate-to-pursue-inter-korea- peace>who pointed out that â€œthere will be operational content to followâ€ and that â€œeven a general commitment passes the bar.â€
Similarly, the Korea Herald, an English-language newspaper in South Korea, declared< http://www. koreaherald.com/view.php?ud= 20180612000793> that the deal â€œopen[ed] a new era of detente,â€ and that it was< http://www.koreaherald. com/view.php?ud=20180613000017 > the â€œfirst step toward peace on [the] Korean peninsula.â€ While noting the agreementâ€™s lack of detail, the paper pointed out that â€œit created space for the two sides to move forward into a cooperative relationship.â€ While the Herald also aired more skeptical views< http://www.koreaherald. com/view.php?ud=20180612000961 >, it made sure to quote experts who took a less alarmist view of the dealâ€™s shortcomings and who suggested that specifics would be worked out in negotiations to come.
Why this marked difference? For one thing, coverage in non-Western media tends to center Moon, who has been the real driving force behind the talks. Western media, by contrast, obsessed as it is with Trump â€” for both ideological and business reasons â€” canâ€™t help but interpret any and every event in relation to him. So we get columns< https://www. washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/ style/the-north-korea-summit- was-a-triumph-of-trumpian- stagecraft-and-the-media-fell- for-it/2018/06/12/0ebe2488- 6e42-11e8-bd50-b80389a4e569_ story.html?noredirect=on&utm_ term=.a09d23e4dc40> talking about how the deal was simply a piece of â€œTrumpian stagecraftâ€ that the media â€œfell for,â€ and pundits confidently asserting that the whole thing is a master move in Trumpâ€™s eight-dimensional chess strategy to give Robert Mueller the slip. For such pundits, South Korea â€” indeed, any country outside the US â€” doesnâ€™t seem to exist.
One ominous result is that liberals, panicked at the idea that Trump might receive credit for lowering the risk of war, are starting to become increasingly militaristic. It will be a sad irony if it ends up being Democrats who torpedo Moonâ€™s quest for peace.
The agreement is, of course, far from perfect and not above criticism. But despite the breathless denunciations of Trump for talking to a dictator â€” and letâ€™s be honest: many of these come from the same people who hail the Saudi crown prince< https://www.jacobinmag. com/2017/11/muhammad-bin- salman-saudi-arabia-hotel- arrests> as a modernist reformer â€” whatâ€™s unfolding right now is probably the best outcome in a bad situation. Koreans themselves seem to realize this. Why canâ€™t our pundits?Î¦
Branko Marcetic is an editorial assistant at Jacobin. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand. This article appeared on June 13 at Jacobin.