Alan Zendell, July 7, 2017

Given the history of Korea since World War II, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it’s the mess it is today. We like to think of the Korea problem as an example of the Good Guys (the South) versus the Bad Guys (the North), a left over concept from the Cold War, of which Korea was and is a perfect microcosm.

Like most cliches, this one doesn’t reflect present day reality, or history either, for that matter. Korea was split in half when we and Soviet Union divided the spoils of the  Japanese Empire in 1945. There were no good or bad guys in Korea then. Both countries were governed by rather despicable dictatorships which were at war with each other almost from the moment of their creation. In 1950, good and bad were defined by the American fear of Soviet expansion which featured the Berlin Wall, The Greek Civil War, and finally, Korea. In those days, every act of American foreign policy was dictated by fear of Communism.

When the Soviet-backed North Korean army invaded and nearly overwhelmed South Korea, we could have looked the other way. Many argued that this was just another civil war that was none of our business, but General Douglas MacArthur convinced President Truman that abandoning South Korea to the Russian-backed North would result in Soviet domination of Europe and possibly lead to World War III. Thus, the same fledgling American dominated United Nations Security Council that two years earlier had created the State of Israel on a barren desert surrounded by sworn enemies and left it to shift for itself, authorized a “police action” to stop the aggression from North Korea.

War weary Americans were often indifferent to the Korean conflict. Polls taken in the Midwest during the war showed that at the height of the conflict, large numbers of Americans were unaware of the fighting in which over five million military and civilian lives were lost. Thus, the Korean armistice was greeted mostly with tired yawns in much of America outside of Washington, New York, and Los Angeles.

What we have today is a prosperous, if not overly democratic South Korea which figured out with American help that manufacturing what the rest of the world wants is the best road to success. (How many Hyundai or Kia vehicles and Samsung appliances does your family own?) In the North we have the third generation of the original dictatorship’s dynasty in Kim Jong Un which has, in effect, remained at war since 1953. What we also have is the product of the foreign policy of American administrations from Eisenhower through Bush 41, the effective life of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. For forty years the driving force in Korea and elsewhere was containing Soviet expansion while avoiding triggering all-out war. The main difference today is that North Korea’s primary backer is China.

North Korea has in many ways been a political pawn of the major powers. Everyone chose to ignore its growing threat, even when it was clear the latest embodiment of the Kim dynasty was a paranoid madman. North Korea has been a diplomatic disaster on all sides, yet none of the major countries involved (the United States, China, Russia, Japan) seems willing to compromise its short term interests to achieve a solution. On one hand, a military solution, even if it is sanctioned by all parties, remains extremely risky; on the other it becomes riskier with every day that passes as North Korea’s technology improves. And that situation is not helped at all by vague threats tweeted by Donald Trump.

You don’t have to be a diplomat to see what is needed here. Short of an internal coup or an assassination plot that takes out the entire Kim support system, the only thing that will slow North Korea down is a concerted effort to strangle its economy, which by all reports is extremely fragile. But achieving that goal requires the kind of cooperative diplomacy that none of the major players has shown either the willingness or the ability to pull off in the past sixty years. And even if they start now, there’s no guarantee that it will work in time to head off a nuclear confrontation. The only thing that’s clear is that the longer it takes the worse the odds become. It’s kind of like the climate change debate but on a much more accelerated time scale.

President Trump has a real opportunity to show the world that he actually is the master of the deal he claims to be. The situation in North Korea demands the best from everyone concerned. But Trump hasn’t shown us anything during his five-and-a-half months in office that demonstrates any substance behind his bluster. I hope for all our sakes that he rises to the challenge.

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