Americans proudly think of their history as a long one, 242 years is indeed impressive by North American standards.
And then there’s northeast Asia, specifically the Korean peninsula, where a tumultuous tribal history was going on for 20 centuries — before Christ. The fascinating modern historic events seemingly underway there now were instigated by an unorthodox president who may be about to accomplish what orthodox leaders never could. These times are a mere finger-snap in Korea’s timeline, but potentially as transformative long-term as the Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989 instigated by another celebrity president.
That divisive Communist structure accomplished nothing in reality. It stood for but 28 years compared to the most recent division of the Asian peninsula into North and South Korea 65 years ago after a bloody, exhausting three-year war that accomplished nothing but the deaths of some five million people, including 10 percent of the peninsula’s prewar population and almost 40,000 Americans.
The armistice boundary between the two Koreas ended where it started, the 38th Parallel just north of Seoul. The 2-mile-wide misnamed Demilitarized Zone there is the world’s most heavily-mined and targeted territory and a stale symbol of the obduracy of the Cold War.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent reunification of Germany was as unimaginable a year before as the still unfolding recent events in Korea were when Donald Trump took office last year: For over a quarter-century successive U.S. presidents of both parties tried patiently and persistently to convince three successive ruling Kims to forsake their nuclear weapons program, offering numerous incentives to Pyongyang’s stricken economy.
The incentives were gladly accepted. But inspectors were soon barred from verification rounds. Satellite images revealed rampant cheating. The North has launched commando raids and artillery barrages on the South. Underground nuclear tests caused local earthquakes. And in recent years the North launched ICBM tests over Japan far out into the Pacific, developing both long-range missiles and re-entry vehicles for warheads.
Along comes an impulsive Trump. He announced an end to the “era of strategic patience.” He organized an international coalition, including China, to stricken the North’s economy more with tightening sanctions. He expressed a preference for diplomacy, saying he’d meet with Kim, a coveted concession to the isolated Hermit Kingdom.
To demonstrate credible strength, Trump also sent stealth bombers and Carrier Task Forces to the region, vowing massive retaliation if the North attacked the U.S. or allies. He derided the current Exalted Leader as little “Rocket Man.”
All of which put the usual Washington worriers into another Trump tizzy.
But suddenly this winter Kim meets with Seoul emissaries to send an invitation to Trump, who stuns everyone by immediately accepting. Kim unilaterally suspends his missile and nuclear tests, adding he no longer objects to joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
Kim also suggests meeting South Korea’s president to talk denuclearization of the peninsula (U.S. nukes left in 1991) and Korean reunification, an emotional string that resonates in every Korean’s heart, though it hasn’t occurred for about 1,500 years. Last week the portly Kim strolled alone across the DMZ to shake Moon Jae-in’s hand, embrace and discuss officially ending the war.
Now, let’s be candid: Nothing has actually changed yet, save for tone and suspending missile launches, both of which could change this afternoon. Kim is never going to give up his nuclear program. He saw what happened when Libya’s Gaddafi did that.
Backed by layers of secret police reporting on each other, Kim is a duplicitous, ruthless, brutal dictator. Ask his brother. Oh, wait, you can’t. Kim had agents rub a lethal nerve agent on his face last year in Malaysia. Ask Kim’s perceived domestic opponents. Oh, can’t do that either. They’re executed, some by artillery. Ask the 40 percent of North Korea’s 25 million people who are malnourished to fund Kim’s arms quest. Can’t do that because they’d be imprisoned for talking with you. And you too perhaps. Think Otto Warmbier.
Dealmaker Trump can’t keep himself from describing the historic nature of meeting Kim Jong Un in coming weeks. This time though, Trump’s right. The meeting alone is unprecedented. And even simple talk is better than missile or artillery barrages.
Trump’s initiative is indeed risky. The same folks who knew he could never be elected are sure he’ll fail here too.
Indeed, much could go wrong to scuttle talks and any deal before, during or after. They haven’t even agreed where yet. Remember, early Vietnam War peace discussions stalled over the meeting table’s shape.
Now, Trump should stop the bluster about preconditions. That could be a deal-breaker over face.
And for a change, the president needs caution and precision in word choice and gestures. There is, for instance, real danger in body language (nodding can simply mean, I hear you, not I agree).
And simultaneous translating is quite tricky between the specifics prized in English and the vague, often intentionally incomprehensible generalities that are laced through Asian languages to avoid offense.
Misunderstandings come easily in the Orient. North Korea’s founder and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, launched his surprise invasion of the South in 1950 because he interpreted the translation of a Truman administration statement to mean the Korean peninsula was outside postwar U.S. interests.
And here we are 68 years later still dealing with it.