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The mother of all summits

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President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump are all smiles during a working dinner at the tea house in the grounds of the presidential Blue House in Seoul on Saturday. Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump are all smiles during a working dinner at the tea house in the grounds of the presidential Blue House in Seoul on Saturday. Yonhap

By Emanuel Pastreich

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in is grasping at straws, trying to squeeze some sort of political value out of yet another summit meeting with the inimitable U.S. President Donald Trump.

But whatever images may decorate the front pages of Seoul's mainstream newspapers over the next few days, the summit will not be able to cover up the fact that South Korea is a disaster.

It has lost its magic touch in most fields, most notably in the shipbuilding and automotive sectors, because of a dismal inability to embrace fundamental change. That means that the once up and coming South Korea has fallen behind China, and even behind Japan, in its transition into a low-carbon economy, to electric vehicles, and it has opened the floodgates for foreign capital while encouraging its citizens to waste their time at coffee shops checking their smartphones and acting all so fashionable.

Meanwhile, the advantages built up over 40 years of long-term industrial, scientific and social planning are being frittered away.

Everywhere in Seoul we see mom and pop groceries, hardware stores and restaurants adorned with "for rent" signs. Youth are right to be deeply worried about where the country is heading while the prospects for meaningful work ― let alone jobs that provide real retirement benefits and authority ― are dwindling regardless of how globally popular BTS may be.

And the progressive president whom voters were led to after the "candlelight revolution," the man who promised to meet ordinary citizens in Gwanghwamun Square regularly, could not be further from the youth of Korea trapped in dead-end jobs in convenience stores. If anything, he is spending more time with representatives of international investment banks and sovereign wealth funds than his people.

Moon, who is perfectly fine locking up the previous President Park Geun-hye for 30 years for actions not worse than those of many other Korean politicians, is delighted to meet Donald Trump as a representative of the United States. Trump's immigration policies are not only illegal but clearly intended to create an effective police state. That does not seem to have even crossed Moon's mind as an issue.

Summit meetings have become something akin to voodoo magic for President Moon. Somehow through the speech acts of Trump, announcing that he has received an "excellent" letter from Chairman Kim Jong-un, all problems can be solved and a road will open up toward peace, unification and prosperity for Koreans.

But talk is cheap, and Trump's talk is cheaper than that of a used car salesman.

The sanctions on North Korea are all in place and are now far worse than they were under the Park administration. Moon is incapable of making any demands of the U.S., or voicing criticism of U.S. policy, which is not only irrational, but psychopathic.

There has been no progress with the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, no exchanges between citizens from the North and South. Moon is silent about the reasons. Pyongyang has been so unimpressed by the servile manner in which Moon has followed Trump around (as opposed to the more independent Kim Dae-jung, or even the feisty Roh Moo-hyun) that it has essentially cut off all exchanges.

And now, the U.S. is so completely pinned down by conflicts on every side ― Venezuela, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and China ― that Pyongyang sees a chance to start responding with threats again. For all we know, we will be back to nuclear tests in a few months. That is to say that we will be back to zero.

But things are even worse than that. The United States once played a complex presence in South Korea. It was the source of tensions with North Korea through behind-the-scenes support for the generals who ruled Korea for decades. But it also offered demands for peace and democracy, whether through the Peace Corps volunteers of the 1960s and 1970s, or through devoted Korean scholars and NGO activists who worked to defend Korean democratic activists against political persecution. Those Americans helped to get the truth out about Gwangju and Jeju and they pushed for an open society.

But that complex American presence is something for the history books now. As an American in Korea for the past 12 years, I have seen the shift.

The US embassy is increasingly isolated today. I have even witnessed open arguments between embassy staff at public events that suggest deep tensions resulting from the top-down administrative policy that has become common today.

Moon has put all his eggs in a basket held by an administration that has spent the past few months trying to start a catastrophic war with Iran for reasons that have nothing to do with peace, the rule of law or the interests of anyone but a tiny elite. Moon treats this nation engaged in various forms of economic warfare, manifested most grotesquely in Yemen, as if it was a reliable partner for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Even Japan, which is run by a right-wing reactionary government that has flattered Trump from day one, is backing away from the wounded beast. The comments by Trump about ending the U.S.-Japan alliance were not an effort to promote internationalism and focus on climate change, but the worst kind of gangster diplomacy.

Those words about Japan cannot be taken back. Always perfectly in control of their expressions, the Japanese are nonetheless fundamentally rethinking the relationship with the United States. We see the shift in the decision to invite Chinese President Xi Jinping for a state visit in the spring.

But Moon seems to have bought into the Trump-focused approach to international relations to such a degree that he lacks even the strategic flexibility of Shinzo Abe.

The summit will represent the extreme of the contrast between images presented about the United States in the Korean media and the reality of what the U.S. has become.

Although the Korean media reports almost nothing of American war crimes in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and around the world, or about the criminal actions against immigrants undertaken by the Trump administration, the fact that something is profoundly wrong in the United States is seeping through.

This is not the United States where Korean government officials studied back in the 1980s and 1990s. They do not want to recognize that painful truth, but it is becoming increasingly obvious.

The efforts of Steven Miller and Mike Pompeo, and other hatchet men, to remove everyone but yes men and hacks from the federal government altered the entire game. The only thing the U.S. government can do after decades of outsourcing, privatization and slashed budgets is to drop bombs and to pretend things are normal. Tariffs, sanctions and war have become but a sliding scale.

There is no one in the Trump White House who could possibly negotiate a meaningful treaty with North Korea, especially after the debacle of Trump walking away from a carefully orchestrated international agreement with Iran.

The time has come for ordinary Koreans to start formulating their own vision for what Korea can become. South Korea must kick its addiction to a media-driven, international finance determined, dead-end plan for engagement with North Korea via glitzy summits. South Korea has become literally the only nation that cannot criticize U.S. policy and lost the autonomy which the unification process was supposed to help restore.

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