Stumbling toward peace on the Korean Peninsula

The positive American response to the proposed meeting has so far been greeted with silence by the North Koreans.

Image Credit: The Hankyoreh

Proving there’s a small grain of truth to the cliche that even a broken clock is right twice a day (though in this case, it’s about once a year), last Thursday, March 8th, the U.S. president shocked the world by way of his decision to have a face to face meeting with Kim Jong Un, the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or, as Trump has called him, ‘Little Rocket Man’.

After months of back and forth insults that set the world on edge and brought the word ‘dotard’ back from obscurity, President Trump had the South Korean national security chief, Chung Eui-yong, who was visiting Washington, announce to the press that the president had accepted a meeting with Kim. The decision was made even more unusual by the fact that Trump accepted the invitation without informing his Secretary of State, a mystery that was solved when he fired him the following week via tweet.

As Chung explained at the time, the proposed summit with the North Korean leader, if it goes ahead, will take place before the end of May, following planned meetings between the two Koreas in early April. In the short term, it would mean a halt to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, at least through the meetings.

Oddly, the positive American response to the proposed meeting has so far been greeted with silence by the North Koreans.

The diplomacy between the principal antagonists in the cold Korean conflict could prove to be a significant victory for South Korean President Moon Jae In, himself the child of North Korean refugees. He’s walked a diplomatic tight rope since taking office in May of last year after his predecessor, the conservative Park Geun-hye, became the first South Korean president to be impeached.

While working to avoid a panic over North Korean nuclear and missile tests in his own country, Moon’s government was simultaneously responding not only to pressure from American and Japanese allies, but to neighboring powers China and Russia, as well. Even in the event that Moon’s efforts are betrayed by the DPRK, they show a rare willingness on the part of a politician of national stature anywhere to put the interests of his country and its citizens before political considerations.

As Moon’s national security advisor also announced in Washington, “I told him (Trump) that in our meeting that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said that he’s committed to denuclearization.”

If this is true, the United States would have to respond under almost any president.

Diplomacy takes center stage

Since the two Koreas agreed to field a joint team at the Winter Olympics in Pyeonchang in February, Moon and others in the South have quietly worked the diplomatic track. Most recently, the South Korean President achieved the feat of holding the April bilateral talks in Panmunjon, near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between the two countries, rather than in the North’s capital, Pyongyang, where most such meetings have taken place in the past.

Another central figure in this story is Kim Yo Jong, 30, the North Korean leader’s younger sister, who is believed to have played an important role in bringing about the ongoing dialogue. She was the first member of the ruling family to visit the South since the 1953 armistice (the Koreas are still technically at war) when she attended the Olympics in February, sitting alongside the South Korean President, and participating in at least two state dinners.

As Hong Min of the Korea Institute for National Unification told the Singapore-based, English language news outlet The Straits Times, “There is a possibility that Kim Yo Jong had a significant part in designing the recent changes in relations.”

While many commentators concentrated on her youth and aspects of her personal style, they failed to note the importance of a young woman elevated to such power in North Korea’s traditionally very macho society.

“Honestly, I didn’t know I would come here so suddenly,” she reportedly said during a toast at a dinner hosted by Moon’s chief of staff, Im Jong-Seok, in Seoul, “Here’s to hoping that we could see the pleasant people (of the South) again in Pyeongchang and bring closer the future where we are one again.”

While the words sound artless to western ears, they touch on one of the few things most Koreans seem to agree on: eventual reunification, something that both Im and his boss have worked for for many years despite strong opposition from South Korea’s conservatives.

(Don’t) give peace a chance

The reaction of the mainstream western press and pundits to the potential diplomatic breakthrough was somewhat puzzling. Many commentators insisted that the inexperienced, incurious U.S. president would actually increase the risk of war by meeting with the North Korean leader.

We were also told that Trump might be led to a bad deal through flattery (always a possibility, if unlikely, considering the damage this would do to relations with the right wing government of Japan and hawks in his own party) and end the harsh sanctions against the country, ignoring the reality that they were imposed by the United Nations and that powerful as an American president is, he can’t reverse them on his own.

One Australian defense analyst warned that the two leaders should not be left alone together, as if such a thing would be allowed by the handlers of either. The question of what might be risked by refusing talks isn’t really being raised by many commentators who seem eager to risk a confrontation in the name of political point scoring.

Perpetual war propagandist Max Boot, who has so very rarely been right on anything in regards to U.S. national security that policy makers would have much more success by simply doing the opposite of whatever he advises, was given valuable real estate on the Washington Post’s editorial page to pontificate about the elusive Kim Jong Un’s motivations.

Boot dismissed out of hand that the initial agreement means the DPRK will suspend its missile and nuclear tests for the time being, using his thus far unproven mind reading powers to explain North Korea’s ruse, “He (Kim) is most likely willing to do even that much only to buy time for his engineers to finish developing a nuclear warhead that can fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.”

Some of those serving in the Trump administration, like current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who is set to replace the current Secretary of State at the end of this month, are on the record agreeing with Boot that North Korea could already have workable ICBMs capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. At the same time, many experts disagree, arguing that there seem to be problems with the re-entry vehicles used.

As Dr. Stephen Schwalbe of the American Military University recently wrote, halting the ICBM launches makes the country less of a threat to faraway Americans, thus opening a window to negotiation and perhaps, a warmer peace, “The reality is that all North Korean nuclear weapons are just heavy radioactive paperweights, unless there is a realistic way to deliver them to a target… So far, Kim Jong Un’s regime has not perfected that delivery system.”

Even more importantly, although some unnamed U.S. intelligence officials have claimed otherwise since at least 2016, as far as we know the North Korean military hasn’t, as Boot helpfully pointed out, figured out how to make a warhead small enough to fit such a missile, no mean feat in technical terms.

Leon Panetta, a former head of the CIA and a former Defense Secretary, not positions usually held by doves, took a more positive approach to the news than many in the media, telling CNN, “I think this is a positive step. I think the world is breathing a sigh of relief.”

Hysteria without context

It’s undeniable that the cult-like government of North Korea fails its people by almost every possible metric, but certain inconvenient facts are always missing from the narrative of western patience and DPRK intransigence, making it easier to simply dismiss the country’s leadership as irrational.

First, the breadbasket of the Koreas is in the South, the mountainous North, even in the best of circumstances, would still need to import food for its citizens. The ever tighter sanctions imposed on the DPRK could be seen as a form of collective punishment and blame apportioned to outside actors by the country’s leadership.

Second, most of the citizens of the countries that participated in the Korean War decades ago aren’t aware of the intense cruelty visited upon the DPRK, whose cities and major towns were leveled, with many of its surviving citizens forced to live in caves throughout the hostilities. It’s believed that as many as 3 million North Koreans died during the conflict, many killed by napalm and other chemical agents. When put in this context, the country’s nuclear program, terrifying as it is, begins to make more sense.

Even the U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, whose nickname is ”Mad Dog”, seemed to understand the complexities of the situation better than many of the so-called liberals on cable news, telling reporters, “But what I want you to understand right now is that every word is going to be parsed… apart across different cultures, and at different times of the day, and in different contexts.”

Take Japan, whose brutal history of colonization in Korea and refusal to recognize or apologize for policies that included forced conversions to Shintoism and denying them the right to their own language, means that they’ll never have a legitimate role in any negotiations in eyes of most Koreans on either side of the DMZ. Obviously, ordinary Japanese citizens today can’t be blamed for the sins of their great grandfathers, but they should know the threat they face from North Korea is a direct result of their country’s little discussed imperialist history. It’s often convenient for elites in powerful countries to forget the sins of the past and then react with befuddled surprise when this history comes back to haunt them.

Another forgotten piece of the puzzle is closer to our own time.

Although the Clinton years now seem long ago, then President Bill Clinton backed out of a promise of a similar visit to North Korea in 2000 after then Secretary of State Madeline Albright held meetings with the DPRK government led by Kim’s father over its then nascent nuclear program. The decision not to make the trip before leaving office was the result of either cowardice or cynicism, as George W. Bush, who would go on to set back relations by declaring North Korea part of an ‘Axis of Evil”, was then in the process of using the courts to win the close presidential election.

While there are at present legitimate concerns that the State Department has been understaffed by the soon to be former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, likely on purpose, and that South Korea has no U.S. Ambassador, it may just be that the lack of interference on the part of American foreign policy mandarins made the talks between the two Koreas easier.

One meeting isn’t going to lead to either the permanent denuclearization of North Korea nor an end to international sanctions against the country, but it’s a start. We can’t allow our dislike of the current U.S. President to cloud our view of the skillful diplomatic work done mainly by South Korea and other regional partners who all have more at stake than the United States in the case of war on the Korean Peninsula. While Moon has a 71% approval rating according to a recent poll, public opinion in the South is still split, and Moon’s window to ease tensions may be short-lived.

In terms of the United States, there’s no guarantee that the famously indecisive U.S. president won’t change his mind before any meeting takes place. A man with a legendarily thin skin, there’s also no way of knowing how Trump will react to the fact that he gets more criticism from the mainstream press for trying diplomacy than he did for threatening the DPRK on Twitter and in a speech to the UN.

Unfortunately, while all this is taking place, the Trump Administration appears ready to end its participation in the Iran Nuclear Deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) the same month as the proposed summit, something that, if it happens, will make it starkly clear to the North Korean leadership that agreements with the United States are not to be trusted.

Trump will, of course, try to take credit for any progress that comes out of a summit, if it happens at all. It may seem like a betrayal to some, but if it eases tensions that have the potential to result in millions of Koreans and others dead, we should let him have it. If recent history is any guide, the President probably won’t finish his first victory lap before being engulfed by some newly self-generated scandal. In the meantime, we’ll all be able to sleep more soundly, safe in the knowledge that Seoul and other great cities in Asia are still there, undamaged, and that the Koreas are once again on a very long and winding road toward reconciliation.


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