Interview With Journalist Tim Shorrock On Korea Peace Process And Ugly History Of US Military In South Korea
Hosts Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola interview journalist Tim Shorrock, who recently returned from a trip to South Korea. He was in Singapore to cover the summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un
He has covered Korea since the 1970s. He is a contributor for the Nation and a correspondent for the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism. He has a new piece recently published at the Nation: “An Audacious Proposal for a U.S.-North Korean Alliance.”
In the interview, Shorrock describes his background covering North and South Korea, as well as the U.S. military presence in South Korea and the surrounding region. He contextualizes the diplomatic negotiations between Trump and Kim.
Shorrock provides a history of the armistice that was signed in 1953, which could potentially be used to establish peace. He addresses why South Koreans would not want U.S. troops—30,000 of them—to remain in their country and how South Korea is really responsible for most of the progress toward peace so far.
Later in the show, Shorrock offers a brief history going all the way back to the Korean War, which highlights the impact of the U.S. war and the ramifications it has had for Koreans seeking peace and democracy in the past decades.
To listen to the full interview click on the above player or go here.
Below is a partial transcript of the interview.
GOSZTOLA: Share a little bit about your background reporting on the Koreas.
SHORROCK: I partly grew up in South Korea. I spent most of my youth in Japan and South Korea and so I was in Korea at a very important time in the 1960s, as a kid, when there was a revolution that overthrew the dictator at the time, Syngman Rhee. That had a major impression on me in the sense for the first time in my life I saw people rise up and throw out an unpopular leader and saw an actual kind of revolution unfold before my eyes. And I always remembered that and kept that in mind as I grew up.
During the early 1980s, I went back to South Korea numerous times to cover the people’s movement against the dictatorship at the time, the authoritarian government that lasted for so long. I was one of the only Americans reporting on that during that time, and I developed a lot of contacts among South Korean popular movement and some of the labor groups, people I’ve known for years and still I’m in touch with from those times. So I’ve been writing about this since 1983 so that’s quite a few years.
Over the last ten years, I’ve been to South Korea quite a few times. Last year, I was living in the city of Gwangju for a couple months. This was 2017, as the tensions between U.S. and North Korea really began to escalate from Trump threatening fire and fury and military action like the world had never seen unless North Korea stopped its nuclear program, stopped making what Trump said was its threats against the U.S. So I was there at the time and so I began to write and really follow what was going on with North Korea and the U.S. And I was lucky enough to be able to Moon Jae-in, who was elected president in May of last year.
He is a progressive, who has been around. He’s now the president. He was a labor lawyer for a long time, a human rights lawyer, and became in politics after that. And I was able to interview him in Gwangju during one of his stops there during his campaign, and I was very impressed with what he said about what his plans were, what his dream was for dealing with North Korea issue and also dealing with the U.S. He said that if he could forge peace between South Korea and North Korea he could end a crisis and build a peace in Korea.
That was his dream, and he really began to push on it after he was elected president. So I followed it all throughout last year as Trump was making these escalating verbal attacks on North Korea and also stepping up military exercises and flying in strategic bombers while doing these exercises they had. So it was a really intense time in 2017.
But the way I see it there were two turning points during this period. One was during the summer of 2017, when Moon Jae-in and the South Korean government was well aware there were plans in U.S. for a unilateral military strike on North Korea, to take out their nuclear sites and their missile sites, and he made a very strong public statement—highly unusual, very rare—and actually said there cannot be a war in Korea. The U.S. cannot do any kind of attack without consulting South Korea. South Korea has to be involved in any kind of military discussions. And he made it very clear that he did not want to have a war, and the way forward was negotiation and engagement.
That was very important in terms of making the U.S. understand that South Korea was not on the same page as Trump and not willing to engage in a military attack because they knew that would spark a war, a terrible second Korean War.
KHALEK: Tim, I want to emphasize what you just said in terms plans for military strike because I don’t think people in the U.S. understood how serious that was, that you had plans being drawn up by this administration.
SHORROCK: Right. Actually, what was leaked in July—I think it was last July. It was about a year ago. One of the stories that made people understand how deep this planning was was actually from NBC News, which has kind of been a conduit for all kinds of stuff from the Pentagon and CIA over the last few years. Anyway, they reported there was talk that the U.S. was going to have B-1B bombers off the coast in international airspace in a story that appeared in NBC News.
It was within about 48 hours of that story that Moon Jae-in made his statement and said this cannot happen. This cannot stand. And also, as the year went on, there was thinking that they could strike North Korea. Somebody came up with this term of a bloody nose strike, where they would hit North Korea and then North Korea would not retaliate. Everyone knew how ridiculous that was, that any kind of military strike would start a war.
But what I want to say about the second turning point is people may remember all last year North Korea was testing its ICBM missiles and making progress in getting them to go further and further. They also tested—there were six nuclear bombs. They were getting it ready as a deterrence.
And at the end of the year, in November, after their last ICBM shot was by miles—If they had stretched it out in one line, that was capable of hitting the United States. A few days after that, Kim Jong-un made this declaration that North Korea had completed what he called a state nuclear course. Basically, that was the signal it was the end. They weren’t going to be testing anymore. That signal got through to the Trump administration, which actually last year had been having sporadic talks with North Korea. But once they made clear that the testing phase was over, that was the signal to the Trump administration that there might be a possibly of talking.
What really started those talks, of course, was the January kind of thaw that happened during the Olympics in South Korea, when Kim Jong-un on January 1 said he’d be willing to send a high-level delegation to South Korea for the Olympics and that’s where the whole discussion about a Korea peace process was set off during those Olympic games.
Then, of course, on April 27, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea met at the DMZ, that border between north and south. Kim Jong-un actually crossed into the south, and they made this Panmunjom Declaration about their desire to create a peace process. North Korea and South Korea both pledged denuclearization of the Korea Peninsula, and they really started moving forward on defusing tensions. Those bilateral discussions and exchanges are continuing, and they restored military-to-military talks. They’re talking very soon it’s going to be family visits, and so South and North Korea are actually making real progress in creating a peace process in Korea.
I think that’s really what you’re listeners should understand is this is being led really by the Koreans. In particular, Moon Jae-in has done an amazing job diplomatically pressing this issue and getting talks going. When the Singapore summit looked like it was coming apart, Kim came to the DMZ again and met with Moon Jae-in and they got things cleared up about how they should jointly approach the U.S. and the talks with the U.S. got back on track and then the meeting in Singapore happened. So there’s been this process fueled by the Koreans.
This is like one thing Trump has done that I think is positive. Meeting with the leader of North Korea was very important in terms of breaking the ice and showing that after 70 years of enmity and hatred and war that the two leaders could meet and this could set in a process of negotiations that are continuing now. But it was so important to have that meeting.
KHALEK: The media reaction to it, which you’ve written quite a bit about throughout this whole ordeal as it’s been up and down between the U.S. and North Korea, has been hysterical to say the least. It’s just been complete mass pro-war hysteria. I think Rachel Maddow has been almost like a parody like you can’t believe if you watched her segments about Trump wanting to meet with the leader of North Korea. It almost seemed as if she was parodying herself. It was so absurd.
But I wanted to read an excerpt of an article that appeared in the New Yorker by E. Tammy Kim. This kind of speaks to everything you were just saying and then a little bit more to the U.S. reaction. So I’d like to hear your comments about it.
This author writes:
There is hope today, among South Korea’s fifty-one million residents, in the strange chemistry of Trump, Kim, and the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in; there is a belief that a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War, and a stepwise plan for North Korea’s nuclear downsizing, if not total disarmament, could be imminent. Meanwhile, America’s foreign-policy establishment, conservatives touting human rights, and Democratic leaders have issued statements and tweets (“the summit—and particularly its immediate aftermath—was a farce,” James Acton, of the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program, wrote) that sound more like those coming from conservative extremists in Korea and the ruling right wing in Japan. South Koreans don’t love Trump, but, in a place where the U.S. military led a war that killed millions and created a multigenerational, literal rift, American standing and protocol are not the priority. From the Korean point of view, U.S. politics as usual has done little good for the peninsula. George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” and his opportunistic obsession with North Korean human rights (while setting up the prison at Guantánamo) rolled back years of inter-Korean progress. President Obama, to the profound disappointment of many on the peninsula, did nothing to advance Korean peace.
I just wanted to get your reaction and hear what you might have to add that. I thought it was really interesting the way it is framed that the American response across the political spectrum has been pretty identical to conservative extremists, like right-wingers in both Japan and Korea.
SHORROCK: Tammy is one of the best writers out there on Korea. She is one of the only in the so-called mainstream media that’s making these kinds of points. Of course, she’s Korean American, and she was there for a few months this year. But she’s exactly right.
If you look at what Democrats are saying, what all these liberals like Rachel Maddow, MSNBC are saying, and all these critics in the media of this whole process, they share the same line basically as a very extreme right-wing in South Korea and also Japan. It’s quite amazing.
More pertinent is the right-wing conservative group in South Korea are very isolated now. In the last election, the conservative candidate got like 20 percent of the vote in a five-person race. Moon Jae-in, the progressive, got 40 percent. His approval rating is now around 75-80 percent. So there’s lots of support within South Korea for this peace process, and the right wingers, the people who want a more militaristic approach to North Korea, are a tiny minority. But they’re in the majority here in the United States.
The media reaction has been—First, it was this will never happen. Trump will never meet with Kim. Nothing will happen. And, of course, it happened. They made a very general statement about their intentions to bring a peace process, denuclearization, and there were not specifics—this is going to be done by this time, this is going to be done by that time—because this was the opening for a long series of negotiations that have been going on for the last few months.
The U.S. approach of these liberals and the media is basically this is not a negotiation. It’s a surrender. North Korea is supposed to just surrender, give up its nuclear weapons, disarm, and go home and basically let the U.S. run the show. They look at it as a zero-sum game. Either North Korea gives it all up tomorrow or Kim is taking Trump for a ride. You hear that on CNN all day pretty much. You know, Kim has fooled Trump. Trump is being bamboozled by the North Koreans and so on and so forth.
What North Korea wants—and they’ve been wanting this for a long time—is a completely different relationship with the United States. They want to end this state of war, and they want to have normal relations with the U.S. But they kept saying all last year that we’re not going to negotiate about our nuclear weapons until the U.S. drops its hostile policy, and they used this term hostile policy over and over again.
What they meant was this massive military force that surrounds them in east Asia, that includes the South Korean military, the Japanese military, and U.S. forces in Japan and Okinawa and Guam—We’re talking nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed planes in that region. That’s one part of the hostile policy. The other part is these massive military exercises the U.S. has twice a year, where they practice regime change and invasion and assassinating North Korean leadership. Of course, these exercises have been suspended as part of the negotiation.
Three, they see the sanctions. Not only the sanctions, but you know, North Korea has been under an economic embargo since the end of the Korean War. They want that hostile policy to end, and so they’re looking for gestures, moves by the U.S. to show them that in fact that hostile policy is coming to an end. That’s why it was important when Trump was in Singapore to declare we’re going to suspend these military exercises.
KHALEK: To which, Rachel Maddow lost her shit. She had this whole segment that by dropping the military exercises Trump was giving Putin exactly what he wanted.
SHORROCK: I know. Somehow she crammed it into here Russiaphobia.
Russia has a role to play in the Korean Peninsula. They’ve had long relations, obviously, going back to the Soviet Union with the DPRK. But they’re not a major player here. And the thing is they don’t understand Korea at all. It’s just this Cold War framework, and that’s it.
Throughout the Cold War, North Korea under Kim Il Sung and his successor had disagreements with the Soviets, had disagreements with the Chinese. You can go back. I keep finding documents. I’m doing a lot of research from the past 50 years for a new publication I work for in South Korea, and you can find all these documents about the hostility between North Korea and China going way back, where they really disagree sharply.
It’s only been in the last six months that Kim Jong-un has traveled to China to meet with Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader. He’s met with him three times, but that was the first time he’s ever met the Chinese leadership.
One of the most infamous of the executions that happened in North Korea during Kim Jong-un’s tenure was the execution of his uncle, who was controlling almost all the business and economic exchanges between China and North Korea at the time. North Korea issued this long indictment of him saying he was trying to overthrow the government and was trying to take control himself. But he was very, very close to China and that execution really set back North Korea-Chinese relations for quite some time.
You might remember during the height of this crisis—In the U.S., you kept hearing from the administration’s inside and also in Congress and all the think tanks that China has to pressure North Korea. China has to take the lead. We can’t do this without China. Well, the North Koreans, when it comes to China pressuring them, they don’t give a rat’s ass. They don’t take big power pressure on them. They will not accede to what the Chinese want. This is another meme that is promoted by people in the media. They don’t understand that North Korea has developed this fairly independent foreign policy. It’s not under the control of any country.
KHALEK: The U.S. media is not exactly good at nuances like that, and that doesn’t just apply to North Korea. That applies to so much of the world. There are so many parallels I could make to the way they view the Middle East, where everything is black and white when really it’s not. I didn’t know what you just explained about China and North Korea.
One thing I find interesting about the media coverage of this is how it went from where Trump was doing the whole fire and fury thing, where it went to the media freaking out, like oh my god, Trump’s going to start a nuclear war. Which was the appropriate reaction. Then, as soon as he became conciliatory, the media narrative immediately changed to Trump isn’t enough of a warmonger.
It’s pathetic that all of this important stuff is taking place, especially given the way you just contextualized it, and particularly for North Koreans—because this is happening in Korea and not America. But this becomes political fodder for partisan politics in the U.S., and it makes it impossible to have a nuanced understandable discussion about anything.
SHORROCK: The other thing they don’t get at all—besides not understanding the history of North Korea vis-à-vis China or Russia (or the old Soviet Union)—they don’t know the political dynamics of South Korea either. To them, it’s like this whole issue is the U.S. versus North Korea. South Korea is this colony of ours that basically will do whatever we want.
The mainstream media here and liberals don’t understand that in South Korea, since the early 1980s, there’s been this real suspicion of U.S. motives there. It began with this uprising that I’ve written a lot about, and I was made an honorary citizen of Gwangju a few years ago. I uncovered the hidden U.S. role in a very bloody 1980 military coup that happened. And then there was this massacre in Gwangju City, and people there, after being shot down in the streets by paratroopers that were under this rubric of this U.S.-South Korean joint command, people rebelled and took up arms against these Korean martial law forces.
At the time, the U.S. under the Carter Administration decided this uprising was a danger to U.S. security interests and they sided with the Korean military and helped put down this uprising. Ever since then, there’s been a lot of anger at the U.S.
When I was there a couple weeks ago, there was a lot of talk now—more than I’ve ever heard now—about South Korea being a sovereign country that needs to make its own decisions and needs to break away from this ultra-close relationship they have with the U.S. I think that’s what the media completely misses, and they also miss the fact that this is a Korean-driven process. These two countries that share the same language, same history. They’ve been divided for 70-plus years. They’ve been through a terrible war that inflicted untold damage, killed millions of people in the north and south. They want to end this war and move on and develop some kind of relationship. Eventually, they call it unification, but they know that will take years. But they want to end the enmity.
People in South Korea are really excited about this process, bu they know that it’s going to be very hard for them to end this state of war with North Korea while the U.S. and North Korea are at odds and still at each other’s throats so that’s why the U.S. process with North Korea is so important. And it’s that whole dynamic within the South and the politics within the South that you hardly get any coverage. All you read about is interviews with North Korean defectors in South Korea, and there’s thousands of defectors in South Korea. But that’s about it. Every once and a while there will be an article focusing on Moon Jae-in, but it’s very little.
That’s why I try to emphasize in a lot of what I write and when I do public speaking the role that Moon Jae-in has played in this process; that dream of the Korean people to have a true peace in their life.
For the rest of the interview, listen here.