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North Korea

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.

What happened?

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?

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A South Korean soldier inside the joint security area. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

TBR News Media intern Kyle Barr visited South Korea in 2016. Photo from Kyle Barr

In the summer of 2016 I traveled to South Korea with the Stony Brook University’s program Journalism Without Walls. Though three weeks is never enough time to entrench yourself into a culture, I got to see a lot of what Korea is, and what it isn’t.

We traveled to the Demilitarized Zone, the DMZ, between North and South Korea. We learned of the minefields of the surrounding area hiding behind lines of barbed wire, the towers above the fields that could watch down into the North. Soldiers took us to the Military Demarcation Line in between two buildings, one owned by the North and one owned by the South. There are three small blue houses where the two sides are supposed to speak, but they haven’t for years. There’s a lone North Korean soldier on the far side beyond the line. He stood there at attention up the large stone steps. The atmosphere is oppressive, as if the air sits heavy on the shoulders.

But it’s a tourist spot. It’s a place with a gift shop and where a good many tourism companies run buses to all the major sites. Kids are often taken there, mainly from the schools in Seoul. The South Korean tour guide wanted us to take pictures of the North Korean soldier all at the same time like everyone with a camera was a private with a rifle at a firing line. The DMZ is a tool as much as much as it is a contested piece of real estate. The South Korean government wants you to come, it wants to convince you that everything you see is important.

South Korea is suffused with modernity. From up on the top of Dongguk University in Seoul, where my group and I stayed, the night skyline buzzed with color and light. The streets were clean even through the bustle, as it was a cultural tick for people to pick up garbage even when it wasn’t theirs. The subways were a masterwork of clean efficiency. Electric signs told when the next train was coming, and it was always exactly on time. I think Seoul is the most modern place I have ever been to in my life.

When I originally told my parents I wanted to go there, when asked they couldn’t even find South Korea on a map. Worse, my folks heard the word “Korea” and their eyes went wider than if they had seen a car crash 2 feet in front of them. Korea, to them, was a place of great anxiety, where a madman holding a big red button threatened everything they knew. My mother actually thought it could be possible that I would be walking around Seoul, get lost, then accidentally end up on the other side of the border in North Korea, suddenly finding myself surrounded by armed soldiers.

North Korean soldier on the opposite side of the DMZ. Photo by Kyle Barr

A year ago I didn’t have to fear for my life, of course, but now things are different. Seoul is only a short 35 miles from the DMZ. Along the border in entrenched positions there are thousands of artillery positions well dug in and lined up within easy range of Seoul. Any sort of conflict that erupts, whether from a huge, planned military endeavor or sudden strike, could result in a staggering number of casualties.

I spoke to a few young people originally from North Korea who braved so much hardship to escape to the South, with their parents hiring brokers that would ferry them across harsh terrain into China, and from there a looping path through several countries before they could seek asylum in the South. The people living in the North are destitute and much of the country relies on foreign aid. While some buy fully into the propaganda displayed by the Kim Jong-un government, many are at least in some part disbelieving.

These are the people that we ignore when United States officials talk about a confrontation with North Korea. Not only do they not want conflict, much like us in the U.S, but they and people in the surrounding countries and territories like Japan and Guam are stuck dealing with a conflict between two nuclear powers. In the expression of our fear, it’s imperative that we don’t forget these people who are left in the crosshairs.

Kyle Barr is currently an intern for TBR News Media.

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The hottest real estate in Japan these days is a bomb shelter, with a starting price from $19,000. When I heard that reported on the radio, I was instantly transported back to my first-grade class where, upon a signal, we covered our heads with our coats and slid under our desks. It was the Cold War: Stalin and the Soviets were the enemy, and we had drills to prepare for an atomic blast. One day, there were moviemakers at the school, before television became popular, and they recorded us taking cover for the newsreel that preceded the feature film in every movie theater. In fact, there were two feature films in those days, usually referred to as A and B movies, but first the viewers were treated to the news of the week. I was in the front row of my class, so I could be clearly seen on the screen crouching beneath my desk. But I never saw myself because my parents usually didn’t go to the movies. Neighbors told us that I was front and center.

Just as the movie seemed unreal to me, so did the Cold War and the atomic bomb from whose blast my raincoat was supposed to protect me. World War II had ended, and I grew up in the subsequent Cold War generation.

I heard people talking about building bomb shelters, but I couldn’t imagine having one since we lived in an apartment in the middle of the city. It did occur to me to wonder where we would find shelter in the event we needed to, and I think I questioned my parents about that once, but they didn’t seem to want to discuss the subject so it never came up again. My schoolmates may have been fearful, but we never talked about the bomb.

Then Stalin died, there was eventually detente with the Soviets, a popular novel appeared by Ian Fleming called “From Russia with Love,” we watched the touring Bolshoi Ballet at the old Metropolitan Opera House, something in my gut unclenched, and no one had atomic bomb drills anymore.

I hate the idea that children in Japan are now growing up under the shadow of a nuclear bomb threat. Those in South Korea are surely afraid and, for that matter, now those in Seattle. In fact, fear seems to be rearing its ugly head in the United States, a country ordinarily known for its optimism and “pursuit of happiness.”

For example, I would not like to be an immigrant here today and certainly not an illegal one. Those in that category must be living in fear day and night. I have no sympathy of course for illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes and are therefore most likely to be deported. But the idea that ICE representatives are patrolling the courthouses, looking for illegals, certainly creates an atmosphere of people being hunted. I would also not like to be an employer whose business depended on the seasonal help of immigrants. Industries like hospitality, restaurants and farming haven’t known if their legal immigrant workers would arrive. Without that extra help, many businesses cannot survive because there are not enough Americans willing to do those low-level jobs. Ditto for those with special needs who require aides at home.

On the other side of the ledger, our economic picture seems rosy. The stock market is setting new records almost every day, as corporations are being rewarded for making profits and the prospect of deregulation encourages investment. The unemployment rate is the lowest in some 20 years. Yet there is a great divide between financial and political happiness. Many of the same people happy with the economy are unhappy with the political picture, bemoaning the chaos in Washington, D.C.

As we have always done, we will soldier on with our domestic problems. We are doing less well reacting to the foreign challenges, fear prompting us to answer threats with threats.