Yesterday morning, B+D editor Mitchell Blatt chatted with former Korean army soldier Daniel Kim about the tense situation on the Korean peninsula in the first of a new series. Later that day, North Korea launched a missile over Japan. In our conversation, we discussed Korea’s relations with Japan, White House shakeups and what effect they will have on U.S. policy towards Korea, and Korean President Moon’s “North Korean sympathetic” policy.

Daniel Kim has served as an artillery man and an interpreter in the Republic of Korea Army and is currently enrolled at Eastern Washington University where he is majoring in interdisciplinary studies. He will be joining B+D on a regular basis to discuss Korea issues. Mitchell Blatt is a founder and editor of Bombs + Dollars and is pursuing a degree in International Relations at Johns Hopkins University.

Mitchell Blatt: First off, White House advisors Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka have both been fired/resigned in the past two weeks. How do you think it will affect White House policy?

Let me start with my thoughts: Bannon was pushing for a minimalist response to North Korea. He let loose in an interview with The American Prospect the night before leaving, promising to fire many of the State Department’s East Asia specialists and undercutting Trump’s threats of military force against North Korea by saying, “There’s no military solution.” Trump was saber rattling, but it seemed like Trump was bluffing the whole time. I think Bannon leaving reflects existing White House policy more than meaning any changes. Mattis and McMaster have the situation in their hands. They want to increase pressure but do so rationally, knowing the risks of war.


Daniel Kim: First of all, the media has exaggerated the influence of Bannon on North Korea too much. His big China theory was an assumption that North Korea might actually give up its nuclear arsenal if China just imposed harsh sanctions, oil embargo, and financial sanctions. I don’t think he actually believed a big deal would really end up happening. He said China was “just tapping us along” in the Prospect interview. He said deterrence would work.

But as long as he is out of the cabinet, the hardliners seem to manage the things in their own way. Still the war is a possible option and it will always be. The Korean Armistice of 1953 was never meant for ending the war completely. We’ve continued to be at war.

Blatt: The question is whether a preemptive strike by America is on the table or something like shooting down a missile that is launched, and how North Korea would respond to that.

Kim: I think the rhetorical war between Trump and Kim is now tied. Kim won the first round in April, but Trump won this time because North Korea didn’t even flinch to engage in the vicinity of any US territory. Kim bluffed when he said he would fire a missile at Guam.

Guam is within range of the Musudan. Image created by Wikipedia user Cmglee.

Blatt: The South Korean parliament was briefed on intelligence that the National Intelligence Service expects North Korea to conduct its sixth nuclear weapons test soon. What do you make tof this? And, if they test it, is that another point where tensions could be escalated?

Kim: If the world society ever really admits North Korea as a country officially holding nuclear power, South Korea and even Japan might try to arm themselves with nukes. Now I don’t think South Korea will respond too strongly now. President Moon is a North Korea sympathizer in the first place. Korean progressives and leftists are always obsessed with being moderate and taking pity on North Korea.

The Moon administration’s biggest weakness is definitely national defense. Moon’s foreign policy, especially on North Korea, is ignored by everyone. “Korea Passing” has now become a popular term. (Trump talked to Japan’s leader before Korea.)

Moon’s chief of staff, Im Jong-Seok, was a leader of a radical student group who was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison in 1989 for helping to organize a trip to North Korea that was used by the North for propaganda. Photo courtesy of South Korean information office. Photographer: Jeon Han.

In addition, the real commander in chief of the ROK armed forces is actually Donald Trump. Because war time commandship has belonged to UN Command, which is under supervision of the American general, eventually the American general who is in charge of UN Command follows the determination of the 45th president. Thus, Moon doesn’t really hold any right or option as a commander in chief of ROK forces. When it comes to North Korea, South Korea has never taken the leadership over other major countries such as the US, Russia, and China.

Blatt: Does this also reflect poor diplomacy of Donald Trump? Trump has only nominated someone for 30% of the ambassadorial posts, as of June, and hasn’t nominated anyone to be Korea’s ambassador, despite it being one of the most important parts of the world facing potential conflict.

Graph created by Brookings Institute.

And what about South Korea’s relations with Japan? There is one place where they could work together and have more regional leadership. Yet South Korean people have always been pretty anti-Japan, this administration particularly. Moon has tried to renege on a deal Park’s administration made to get Japan to apologize for comfort women.

Kim: Just don’t underestimate Trump. He is very particular with his taste. He seems to make his own scenario work here.

It is true that South Korea has never truly liked Japan. However, personal grudges should not affect real diplomacy (and this is very much regarded to national security of Korea). I believe that an East Asian version of NATO must be organized to confront both China and Russia.

South Korea and Japan are anyway too close to each other to be perpetually on bad terms. They share the East Sea (personally I’m not gonna call it the ‘Sea of Japan’) and in case of the Second Korean War, the Japanese Naval Defense Force would become an exceedingly important asset. The another biggest flaw of Moon and other leftists in Korea is that they just wanna keep attacking and biting Japan in order to earn votes by stimulating Korean people’s historic animosity and grievances against Japan.

You know that Vietnam is the country that wants Japan’s rearmament the most. And they are buying weapons from the US. Vietnam hates China more, you know. And Chinese expansion is targeting islands Vietnam lays claim to. So countries have to put away their old hatreds and look at the present.

Blatt: Speaking of Japan-Korea relations, there was another controversy at the press conference for the Japanese video game Yakuza. As reported by Kotaku, “Terajima said, “Today, there are…several of the people up on this stage are Koreans [“Chosenjin”], truly… I only hope no missiles come flying from Korea.”” (The word “Chosenjin” is considered a racial slur in many cases.) As a South Korean, are you offended, or is the outrage just PC culture run amok?

Kim: I don’t really give a damn about that kind of bullshit. Even Koreans often love to call Japanese by racial slurs. What is the big fuckin’ deal? I never give a fuck about PC shit. It is just a stupid game. A diplomatic confrontation over a video game? It’s nonsense. Is anyone who has ever played Call of Duty proudly a Germany hater?

And this is Moon’s problem. He and his party just wanna keep using Japan as the best tool for earning votes while Japan could actually be one of the most important allies in East Asian. Idealism must be outta the picture when it comes to possible dangers. South Korea without US and Japan is nothing but a useless small appendage to Russia and China. South Korea alone is vulnerable to be dominated by Northern Chinese ground forces in Manchuria within a month. China will have heavy casualties, too. But if the use nukes on Korea, Korea wouldn’t fuckin’ last a week.

Blatt: Finally, I see the South Korean foreign minister continues to talk up the possibility of dialogue with North Korea. The Korea Times reported, “South Korea may find opportunities to resume dialogue with North Korea by the end of early October if Pyongyang makes no further military provocations, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Monday.” It seems the administration must have cognitive dissonance to be able to talk about the Pyeongyang stopping military provocations the same week they tested multiple missiles, at the same time they are expected to test nukes again.

They are always overly optimistic in their words.

Kim: There has been over 70 years of division and confrontation in North Korea. North Korea has never been interested in making anything good happen. If that was ever possible, this wouldn’t have last seven decades.

Image of Donald Trump from Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons licensed.

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