Thursday, March 8, 2018

A Ray of Light on the Korean Peninsula

North Korea leader Kim Jong-un recently met with South Korean National Security Chief Chung Eui-yong. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News) 

By Dr. Charles K. Armstrong

After months of nuclear sabre rattling and threats of “fire and fury” between Pyongyang and Washington, peace seems to be breaking out in Korea. In February, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent his sister and close aid Kim Yo-jong -- along with other officials and a squad of cheerleaders -- to attend Winter Olympics in South Korea. At the beginning of March, South Korea sent a delegation led by the President’s chief of National Security to Pyongyang.  The South Koreans met with Kim Jong at length, and reported Kim’s interest in holding a North-South summit meeting in April -- the first such meeting since 2007. The North Koreans are also willing to discuss denuclearization with the United States, and offered to suspend nuclear and missile tests while such talks take place.

Donald Trump voiced some cautious support for these developments, calling the statements from North and South Korea “very positive” while tweeting that they may just give “false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!” No doubt Trump thinks his dire warnings to “totally destroy” North Korea played a role in getting Pyongyang to offer to talk to the US. But North Korea has been living with the threat of annihilation by American nuclear weapons since the 1950s; what’s new is North Korea’s demonstrated ability to lob an ICBM at the US.  Trump seems to want to take a page of out of the Nixon playbook and apply the “madman theory of politics” to North Korea: don’t mess with me because I’ve got my finger on the nuclear button and I just might be crazy enough to press it! It’s probably not a good idea however to try to out-crazy the North Koreans, who’ve gotten very good at nuclear brinkmanship over the decades. It’s also worth remembering that the “madman theory” didn’t work out so well for Nixon in Vietnam.

The key point that often gets lost in these games of nuclear posturing over Korea is that millions of lives are at risk, and most of them are Korean. No amount of “credibility” or tough-guy reputation is worth turning the Korean peninsula into a radioactive wasteland. With this in mind, Koreans, North and South, are at long last taking matters into their own hands. They are trying to preserve their own country, and it’s in the interest of the United States to work with the Koreans to hammer out a peaceful and lasting solution to the Korean conflict. Too much is at stake to let this opportunity pass.

Dr. Charles K. Armstrong is the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences Department of History at Columbia University. Dr. Armstrong teaches courses on Korean history, U.S./East Asian relations, the Vietnam War and global history. He is a frequent commentator in the U.S. and foreign mass media on contemporary Korean, East Asian, and Asian-American affairs. From The G-Man proudly welcomes Dr. Armstrong to its expanding list of contributing writers and special correspondents.

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