With Skepticism, Rather Than Optimism The Tides of Korea Turn
As an eternal optimist, it strains my natural bent to be thinking these thoughts. It isn’t my inclination, but I can’t help it. I’ll admit, I don’t feel at all good about this imminent conference during which, for the first time in recent history, North and South Korea and America will collectively meet.
The exact date for this unprecedented tripartite event hasn’t yet been announced, but it’s expected to happen at the end of this very month. Nor, for that matter, has its location been revealed. Some think it will be hosted at Geneva, others New York, others Shanghai, still others at the DMZ. A monumental summit, after all, befits a memorable place by which to be remembered. Just think of Potsdam, Portsmouth, Paris, Versailles, or Yalta. In just hearing the name of those otherwise ordinary towns, posterity knows the entire scope of its history. Whichever city is chosen in this case, it could prove to be one on which we look and comment for generations to come.
Likely, of the four contending options, that which is chosen will be the one last listed. This would only be fitting, for it’s there—at the DMZ—where history on the peninsula begins and potentially ends. It’s there that the South accelerates in a flurry of dynamism, internationalism, success, wealth, and free-trade. Concepts, the lot of them, for which South Korea has the West to thank. Likewise, it’s there at the DMZ where the North trudges along in its wretched state—isolated, barren, feudalistic, communistic, malnourished and maladapted to a changing and developing world. They regress at a rate inversely proportional to that at which the North moves ahead. At that fifty-third parallel, that line thinly demarcating liberty and tyranny, satiety and hunger, hope and despair, and the future and the past, the three leaders—Kim Jong-un, Moon Jae-in, and Donald Trump—will meet for the first time as one. What will come of their meeting, I know not; I have only a hunch. I certainly do hope for the best but more than anything else, I expect the worst. What I do know, however, is that people across America and around the world seem to be getting just a bit ahead of themselves in thinking this meeting will be an unprecedented boon.
I fear I’m quite in the minority in thinking this, but everything about this meeting augurs ill. That’s not to say, though, that I think it’s a meeting not worth having. Doubtless, it is. I perhaps should’ve prefaced everything I’m about to say by admitting as much. I’m not only happy, but ecstatic to know that so improbable a meeting is not only possible, but impending.
Not so long ago, about eight or nine months if we’re keeping track, America and Asia seemed to be on an ineluctable crash course, a collision at whose end awaited nuclear war. Not since the early years of Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro had America and the world been on so frighteningly thin a wire. Kim Jong-un had called President Trump a dotard. Trump responded by calling him “little Rocket Man”. One flaunted his nuclear button, the other his assumedly “bigger” and certainly more functional button. One spoke of the annihilation of the West, the other of fire and fury. Occident and Orient were at a stand-off as egos clashed on a momentous and precarious scale. Sabers not only rattled in scabbards, but gleamed in the open air as if ready to strike. Most harrowingly of all, though, behind all the macho posturing and phallic intimations, there lingered the actual threat of a nuclear first strike.
North Korea has had in its possession since the earliest days of the Cold War nuclear reactors. They were, at the time, an innocuous gift from the Soviet Union, to whom the North looked as a massive, albeit corrupt and benighted, protectorate state. At the war’s end, the Korean peninsula had been divvied up between American and Russian interests. This new transference of ownership was a result of its having been liberated from an oppressive and now crippled Japanese empire. And while it’s clear that America earned for herself a piece of the country (for having severely weakened Hirohito’s forces and his country’s morale), it mustn’t be forgotten that Russia did as well. If not for the threat of Moscow’s planned invasion of Japanese territories (and, by extension, its long-suppressed desire for vengeance after the embarrassment that was the Russo-Japanese campaign of 1905), Tokyo—even after having suffered through the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—might not have surrendered to the U.S.
What proved first a spoil of war quickly became a heavy cross to bear. America did its part to inaugurate a democratic society in the South, and all signs of her having done the job well were propitious. The state was relatively stable and all investments would soon prove themselves profitable. Cheap exports of textiles and then irresistible technology were soon to begin flowing out of Seoul’s ports.
Up above, the North didn’t get along nearly as well. Kim Il-sung acceded and followed his trans-Siberian and Chinese neighbors along the paths they set forth. Those paths, of course, ended with gulags and great leaps and totalitarian, autocratic, communistic nightmares. They were paths at whose ends stood the corpses of at least 100 million women, children, and men, from kulaks to landlords and businessmen to the bourgeoisie. At the end of the day, Kim Il-sung won the succor of Mao and Stalin, while South Korea earned the respect of the world.
Succor comes in many forms. It came in the form of Chinese troops during the Korean War and, as mentioned briefly, in the form of Russian nuclear reactors thereafter. Ostensibly, it was Moscow’s plan to help North Korea usher in a new era of energy independence (while simultaneously ensuring its reliance on the Soviet state). North Korea had been ravaged by war and exploitation and was very much in need of some form of sustainable energy and reliable infrastructure. Nuclear energy was and, despite all of its recent bad press, still is one of the best and most productive means to that end. It’s able, unlike most other energy sources, to create output on a broad, relatively clean, and continuous scale.
But it also lends itself to ulterior motives. It didn’t take long for the original plans for an energy grid to be scrapped and to welcome the more attractive pursuit of a nuclear bomb. The blueprints were drawn and for six decades, three Kim regimes tried to bring them to life. Finally, today, their collective, inter-generational dream has been realized. The price, however, has been steep; the country’s population—innocent, indoctrinated, and captive though it is—has been made to languish and die in darkness for years. All of this, for the sake of a bomb and security and longevity for a depraved regime.
Would Kim Jong-un so heedlessly throw away everything for which his family worked? Would he broker a deal with the West that would all but guarantee the dissolution of his and his father’s and his grandfather’s shared dream? I tend to think not. We mustn’t forget that he isn’t your average autocrat, not your prototypical tyrant. He’s young, and likely for that reason, he’s brash. He’s more pugilistic than his predecessors, more daring and maniacal as well. He’s nothing like Saudi Arabia’s equally young Mohammed Bin Salman, who himself shrouds a despotic core in a progressive’s skin. Kim Jong-un, also in the third decade of his life, is much more a menace on the world’s stage. You might scoff and call his whole shtick compensatory, as if to make up for those twenty-first-century luxuries of which his state’s in need, but I shiver and call it minatory.
Yet this seems to be lost on many observers and wishful thinkers. Far too many are far too sanguine about this upcoming meeting. Adding to this façade that everything is going to get along just fine is the fact that Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in enjoyed a recent and unprecedented meeting. For the first time since the once unified Korea split into two, Kim Jong-un ventured to the DMZ, crossed its border, shook his erstwhile enemy’s hand, embraced him in a fraternal hug, dined with him that evening, posed for picture after picture, and returned to the North as if the new propagandistic friendship were a fait accompli. This comes after the two Koreas unified, if only for sport, at the 2017 Winter Olympic games.
It would appear from a distance that the scaffolding has been put in place for the building of a renascent Korea. Kim Jong-un doubtless is interested in the unification of the two Koreas into one, but undergirding his lofty design is an insidious catch. He wants one Korea so long as it’s he who sits atop the dais as its head of state. That’s an important and unsavory point beyond which most people are prone to look. Sure, the idea of a unified Korea is ambitious, laudatory, grand, and many things more, but who, I beseech you, dear reader, do you think will lead this new country forward? To think that Kim Jong-un would countenance a coalition government or relegate himself to a second-tier potentate is absurd. So too is it quixotic, and the sooner we see the windmill and discover that behind it, there is no breeze, the better.
Moon Jae-in, however, sees the light at the end of this tunnel. Not only that, but he sees it as being quite near. He’s an acolyte of South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy”, so named for its reference to the title of one of Aesop’s lesser-known fables. From this ancient Greek peddler of myth, the Sunshine Policy pines for the day that the northern wind might be tempered by the southern sun and the two might live like a summer’s day in everlasting warmth and harmony.
The policy was originally instituted in the late 1990s, actively pursued in the early 2000s, and finally jettisoned before the end of the new millennium’s first decade. The policy’s objective was bold: to ease hostilities between the two nations was its short-term goal and in the long-term, it wanted to set the groundwork for a lasting rapprochement. Moon Jae-in seems to want more than anything else for this policy to work. To this end, he’s openly advocated for a decreased presence of American troops on the peninsula, as well as the casting aside of the American-made THAAD (or, terminal high altitude area defense) missile defense system. It would be upon this very instrument he would rely if indeed a nuclear first strike were to tear through the atmosphere en route to Seoul, yet he wants it out of his sight.
So, we have here Moon Jae-in, whose political ascent was punctuated with less than implicit anti-American ideas. Anti-American, at least as far as our military presence in his country is concerned. He’s still an invaluable ally of ours in the far East. Contrary to him, we have Kim Jong-un, who’s made his position known. He’ll settle for nothing less than the complete expulsion of all American troops from the peninsula and probably a dismantling of its arms. And then finally, contrary to him, we have President Trump, who’s also made eminently clear that he too wants American troops—be they in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Sudan, or South Korea—returned home, and returned home fast.
Add all of these factors and personalities together, swirl them in a pot, let them marinate for a year or two, let North Korea feign the dismemberment of its nuclear capabilities à la Iran, award a few Nobel Peace Prizes, recall all of America’s troops from the peninsula, lull the world into thinking that it’s witnessed the inauguration of an irenic new age, one in which comity and stability take precedence as the status quo, and viola! You have a recipe for disaster. The northern winds will most assuredly begin again to swirl, a tempest will form anew, and the virile north will invade and conquer the decadent south. Such was the case of Greece and Macedonia, so too was it for Rome and the Barbarians, so too might it be for South Koreans and for Kim Jong-un in the North. It’s for this reason that with skepticism and not optimism I wait to see what happens next.