For those of us who remember the savage Korean War (1950-53) and the various attempts at a peace treaty over the years, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un’s pirouette from warmonger to statesman is astonishing. All of us remember the test missiles that were fired from North Korea, some over Japan, into the sea as recently as last year.
We also remember the bellicose rhetoric about being able to reach the continental United States from North Korea with those missiles.
First there was President Donald Trump’s equally bellicose rhetoric, some of it personally aimed at North Korea’s leader, referred to as “Little Rocket Man.” Trump was severely criticized at the time for sounding like a schoolyard bully rather than a diplomatic leader. The world watched in horror, wondering if we were on the edge of nuclear war. All the while North Korea’s ongoing tests were apparently successful. Probably the most concerned was South Korea’s new leader, Moon Jae-in.
Next came the Winter Olympics serendipitously and President Moon’s invitation to the North Koreans to participate under one flag. This too was unprecedented. Kim accepted and perhaps more tellingly sent his sister as his representative. She seems to be one family member he trusts. We all witnessed the diplomatic success at the Olympics.
In retrospect, something seems to have changed after that. Was it a new perspective for the two Koreas as a result of the games? Or did it have some connection to the subsequent visit Kim made to China in the middle of one night? I believe that was Kim’s first trip out of his country, and of course it is significant that he chose to visit Premier Xi Jinping. Was Kim invited or did he request the meeting? What advice was he given by the powerful Chinese leader, who seems to have established a rapport with Trump? What will the Chinese, with their long-term view, want to happen now?
At this point, Kim has been counseled, Moon has been galvanized and the tenor of the Korean debate begins to shift. Kim invites Trump to meet with him, and over the objections of our diplomats, Trump immediately accepts. There is no doubt that Trump is partially responsible for this shift.
The two Korean leaders then enter into a diplomatic choreography with lots of positive dialogue that plays well for the people of both Koreas, and the rest of the world for that matter, who want peace. In war, it is humankind that suffers terribly, and the people can only hope and pray for their leaders to keep the peace.
So what does North Korea want, as far as we can tell? Certainly Kim wants to stay in power as the No. 1 priority. So far his most visible achievement is his development of nuclear missiles. He also professes to want an improved economy. In fact, he was surprisingly forthright about the woeful condition of his roads and infrastructure in talking with Moon. When North Koreans went to the Olympics, they were apparently impressed by the South’s trains — and probably everything else that attests to a good economy.
The South wants to eliminate the threat of nuclear war and confrontation. And perhaps it wishes to invest in the economic recovery of the North, where there will be money to be made. The Chinese would like to see the United States leave the Korean Peninsula. I would be keenly interested in what else China expert Henry Kissinger thinks the Chinese want. Undoubtedly the South would also like to see us go if peace is
somehow assured. There are some 30,000 American troops still stationed in South Korea.
And what would we like? We would first like the removal of nuclear weapons from North Korea and finally a formal peace treaty ending the 65-year conflict.
Those goals have seemed irreconcilable until now but perhaps what we will get is a prolonged peace.
Where is the Invisible Hand of China in the Current Korean Dance?