Ending the Korean War: Donald Trump as Ex-President

By | July 31, 2018 | No Comments

Jimmy Carter with Kim Il-sung during his 1994 trip to Pyongyang. | Image: French-North Korean Friendship Association

The anniversary of the Korean War armistice, which put the war on pause 65 years ago, has arrived on the Korean peninsula with a number of tangible reminders of that conflict. The reception of war remains at Osan Air Base is one such reminder. Kim Jong-un meeting with veterans at the Fatherland Liberation War Cemetery and a trip to Mao Anying’s tomb in Shenyang are two others. As Sino-NK has covered in the past, war memory has a way of strengthening new relationships and bringing the two Koreas into alignment. In these most recent cases, it seems to be the rekindling of an extant Sino-North Korea alliance and the opening of a diplomatic door to the US, specifically the Trump administration.

In fact, bringing the US under the fold of war memory and history is turn in events. In the following essay, Adam Cathcart looks at the end of the Korean War and its resonance today from what is a somewhat neglected perspective: the American one. Although Donald Trump is not (yet) looking down the barrel of impeachment proceedings, Cathcart argues that Trump is in many respects in Korea acting more like an ex-President than a conventional, active one.  — Steven Denney, Senior Editor

Ending the Korean War: Donald Trump as Ex-President

by Adam Cathcart

For all the weirdness and pomp that came along with the Singapore summit, in some ways the conclusion of the event drained Donald Trump of his novelty. Namely, the fact that the Singapore summit resulted in written goals — among them, ending the Korean War  — has meant that the administration has set before itself a concrete goal which will require interaction with his predecessors, specifically those  either fought or negotiated (directly or indirectly) with the North Koreans, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Perhaps the ever-expanding myth of Trumpian exceptionalism means that we are obliged not to do so. Rather, we must spend a great deal of time wringing our hands publicly about Trump’s demonic tweets, or, in Singapore, how Presidential preparation amounted in part to the man sitting in a hotel room watching Dennis Rodman give a teary-eyed interview.  But we might also think about Trump and his predecessors, and what that all means. 

One of the most striking things about Trump’s discourse on North Korea at the Singapore summit was not how much not like a President he sounded, but how like an ex-President.

With his statements of empathy for North Korean security concerns, he sounded most like Jimmy Carter in Pyongyang in 1994. As described by Bob Galllucci at a four-hour retrospective event on US-North Korean relations at CSIS, Carter’s great talent as a negotiator was to inhabit his adversary’s position, that is, to understand where they were coming from. (Gallucci went on to explain how Carter essentially bypassed the Clinton administration to offer the North Koreans a deal; a lesson in the dangers of freelancing, perhaps). For all of Trump’s empty reserves of empathy for any number of American groups, he seemed to “get” Kim Jong-un and recognize something like the pain of the Korean War from the North Korean perspective.

Trump and Herbert Hoover in Korea | Trump’s willingness to meet Kim Jong-un directly, along with his disdain for the US troop exercises and presence in South Korea, bring him into resemblance with an unexpected figure, that of Herbert Hoover. Hoover, a Republican, had extensive life experience in East Asia, and as ex-President visited South Korea on a world hunger tour in 1946. Hoover was dismissive of the achievements of the US occupation of South Korea (indeed, writing privately, Hoover mirrored some British Foreign Office opinion by saying the Japanese had done a better job with the peninsula than the Americans were doing in the South). And he strongly believed that the US had lost an opportunity to prevent war with Japan by not setting up a face-to-face meeting between Emperor Hirohito and President Roosevelt in October 1941. 

Part of Hoover’s fixation with getting the US out of East Asia had to do with a specific type of anti-Roosevelt mania — an emotion and intensity which almost certainly outstrips that of Trump’s angry obsession with Obama and the Clintons. In his retirement, Hoover began (and never finished) a magnum opus of over one thousand pages in which he indicted Roosevelt’s foreign policy of unnecessary entanglement, particularly in East Asia. In Hoover’s view, the US position in Korea was by its very nature due to Roosevelt’s naive encouragement of Stalin at Yalta in February 1945. 

In focusing on the high cost of US military deployments to the Far East, Hoover had been triggered into this by thinking for several years about the meaning and the costs of hunger around the world. In a letter to Senator Homer Ferguson in mid-July 1950, Hoover anticipated that the US would quickly defeat the North Koreans, restore security to the Korean peninsula, and thereafter…

should pull back our military actions to the Western Hemisphere. A war with Russia, with the support we now have in sight, could never end until we were economically exhausted — and we will be by a condition of huge armament for a few years even if we have no war with Russia.1)Quoted in Gary Dean Best, Herbert Hoover: The Postpresidential Years, 1933-1964, vol. 2, 1946-1964 (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press: 1983), 337. 

Given Hoover’s complaints about the small amount of skin that US allies allegedly had in the game in Korea, these comments are indeed familiar. Like Hoover, Trump complains about costs of military operations. While some have downplayed the savings of costs on reducing joint military exercises with South Korea, others have a more expansive view as clearly held do by the current US President. 

In a paradoxically pro-Trump interview with The Nation, the historian Bruce Cumings analyzed the Singapore summit and cited a figure of $40 billion per year spent in East Asia and the US deterring North Korea. Suffice it to say, this amount surpasses North Korea’s total annual GDP. 

Eisenhower’s Insomnia | Ex-presidencies surely have their attractions, unbolted as they are from policy responsibilities or administrative trivia. One can make comments about how the world ought to change, without being obliged to be the agent of transformation. But in looking at ending the Korean War, ultimately an active president in the full flow of his term will need to be confronted by the present occupant, however sleepless or preoccupied that occupant might be.

In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower had been through about six months of vigorously “kinetic” approaches to North Korea. As Kim Il-sung complained to Soviet diplomats shortly after Stalin died in March of that year, American actions were resulting in the deaths of 300 to 400 North Korean troops and their logistical helpers, daily. Eisenhower had indeed taken up the regular bombing of North Korean cities, villages, and industrial and dam sites as well. (There is an instructive connection between Eisenhower’s actual bombing and the potential nuclear cloud over North Korea, and the rhetoric of Donald Trump.)

The Eisenhower Library has made available a fascinating document, dated August 6, 1953, written by an assistant to the President who describes the executive’s sleepless night just prior to the final signing of the Armistice on July 27, 1953. Eisenhower’s rapid turn to the memory of Soviet generals and their total disregard for life in the final weeks of the Second World War is particularly fascinating. While Eisenhower was almost obsessively concerned with the needless loss of life in the run-un to the armistice, he shares few thoughts for the agency of the North Korean leadership.

Trump, on the other hand, has a penchant for speaking flippantly about war, but is also taken with the power and autonomous action that his North Korean counterpart can undertake. It’s not yet clear how Trump’s tendency to act like an ex-president will be reconciled with that fact that he is the acting president and must deal with all the constraints and responsibilities that come with the role. He may wish to reduce the US presence in Korea (something he sees as unnecessarily costly). How, exactly, he will execute that, if that is indeed what he wants, remains unclear.

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1. Quoted in Gary Dean Best, Herbert Hoover: The Postpresidential Years, 1933-1964, vol. 2, 1946-1964 (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press: 1983), 337.

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