US President Donald Trump abruptly ruled out the Republic of Korea (ROK)'s suggestion to lift unilateral sanctions on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) this week.
In a comment which shocked many US foreign policy observers, he said, “They won't do it without our approval. They do nothing without our approval.” Such a remark expressed clear disrespect for ROK's sovereignty and national interests.
Inflammatory and offensive comments are very much routine in the Trump administration. Even if it is not spoken so bluntly, Trump's statement reflects a well-established broader mentality among conservative or hawkish American foreign policymakers.
These American politicians treat Seoul's own decision-making with contempt and even distrust. Thus, as rude as it was, Trump has revealed the truth about Washington's mindset.
This form of thinking truly expects the ROK to follow the United States' wishes without question. It assumes what is best for Washington, is always best for Seoul. It fails to understand that the ROK sometimes may see and need things differently, such as making peace with the DPRK.
US strategic interests must always supersede what ROK people feel are necessary. Therefore, when Seoul makes decisions that might deviate from Washington's expectations, American politicians lambaste it as a form of treachery which dishonors “American support,” or worse, a “communist conspiracy.”
As a peace process has emerged with DPRK in 2018, a growing number of hawkish “commentators” have openly attacked ROK President Moon Jae-in's administration, arguing that it stands as a betrayal of American interests.
They also utilize Cold War rhetoric to claim that a formal peace treaty will equal immediate subversion and even annexation by Pyongyang.
DPRK leader Kim Jong Un (R) and ROK President Moon Jae-in (L) wave to Pyongyang citizens from an open-topped vehicle as they drive through Pyongyang on September 18, 2018. /VCG Photo
In every incidence, these commentators have failed to even consider why the thought of an American-generated war on the Korean Peninsula is undesirable to pretty much everyone in the ROK, or how the Trump administration's behavior has contributed towards this. Either way, Seoul's opinion doesn't matter, only what Washington wants.
Thus, the Trump administration has continually frustrated and stalled the peace process by attempting to deprive Seoul of the right to move forward with inter-Korean projects or the removal of unilateral sanctions, even when those measures do not conflict with United Nations Security Council boundaries.
Where does this condescending mentality towards the ROK originate from? It originates from the epitome of the Cold War itself, the discourses of “American heroism” and the lasting mentality of this conflict on American political thought.
Americans believe they are the saviors of the ROK, and paint a simplified narrative that they rescued the country from communism. In reality, the US had played a role in dividing the peninsula and creating the very instability which created the Korean War.
Afterward, their role on the Korean Peninsula did not just deal with the fear of another attack from Pyongyang, but the implicit belief that ROK people could not be trusted to make the “correct choices” about their country.
Washington concurrently oversaw the consolidation of a McCarthyist state in Seoul. Thus, at all times, they needed the “guardianship” of the righteous and upright Americans to keep them safe, not just from Kim, but from themselves.
DPRK leader Kim Jong Un (2nd L) and his wife Ri Sol Ju (L) pose with ROK President Moon Jae-in (2nd R) and his wife Kim Jung-sook (R) on the top of Mount Paektu, DPRK, on September 20, 2018. /VCG Photo
Any attempt for the two countries to come together or unify on terms not acceptable to Washington's strategic interests was a threat.
Despite the fact that the Cold War is long over, this mentality has persisted stubbornly in the minds of conservative US foreign policymakers and commentators, many of whom continue to argue Moon's bid to secure peace with its neighbor is nothing more than a dangerous and sinister plot, or if not openly saying that, treating it with contempt and disdain.
The ROK people are again depicted as akin to children or fools unable to make correct decisions -- “how dare they envision a peaceful future which doesn't meet Washington's strategic interests!” For even besides Pyongyang, even when Seoul wants to have a prosperous economic relationship with its largest trading partner, China, this is received with outrage.
In summary,when Trump makes comments concerning “approval,” he speaks cold and hard truths about Washington's frame of mind. The more conservative and militant voices in Washington don't truly respect the ROK.
The ROK isn't understood as a sovereign nation with real national interests or its own perspective in the world, but a convenient tool for advancing American strategy that must be kept on a leash and reigned in harshly.
Although peace is unfolding, the US was prepared to sacrifice it on a whim for a war of their making. As Senator Lindsay Graham said, such loss of life is okay as it would be “over there” and “not here.”