The Corner


Between the Koreas, a Dangerous and Delicate Dance

Headlines out of the Olympic Games say that North Korea is “stealing the show” and “winning diplomatic gold.” These headlines may be annoying, but they may also be true. This is an extremely important subject.

I’ve been an Olympic junkie for some years. And that includes the intersection of politics and the Olympics. There have been many books on this subject, not to mention thousands of articles. I’ve written several of my own — articles, that is.

The biggest, I think, was this one, from 2008, when Beijing held the Summer Games.

Today, it helps to see things from the South Korean point of view. They are fascinated by the North, understandably, and nervous about it too. The two Koreas fought a horrible war. If there is another one, the North will have nukes.

Furthermore, South Koreans are fascinated by North Korea’s ruling family, about which so little is known.

Pardon some plugola: In my history of the Nobel Peace Prize, I take up the subject of Kim Dae-jung, who won the prize in 2000. He won it for his “sunshine policy” toward North Korea. In a study of dictators’ families, I take up Jong-un, Yo-jong, and the rest. They are interesting, yes — ghoulishly so.

Something new under the sun was the arrival of Kim Yo-jong in South Korea. (She is the current dictator’s sister — his only full sister.) (He has some half-sisters, presuming they’re still alive.) She presents an attractive package — at a time when many South Koreans are ripe for seduction.

When Korean athletes from both states marched under the same flag — a “unification” flag — this was highly meaningful to the South Koreans watching. And President Moon’s handshake with Kim Yo-jong was highly meaningful too.

These gestures brought people relief and hope — misplaced as those things may be. As I say, South Korea is ripe for seduction.

The United States is not without responsibility in this. President Trump has talked about abrogating the free-trade agreement between the U.S. and South Korea. (It was signed in 2007, when George W. Bush was in office.) He has adopted the slogan “America First.” He has cast doubt on old alliances.

If you were South Korean, what would you think? You might think that you could not rely on Uncle Sam, as you have for decades. You might look for a rapprochement with the North, some of that elusive “sunshine.”

Also, Trump has bragged about the size of his “nuclear button.” He says that it’s bigger than Kim Jong-un’s. Moreover, there is talk from the White House about a “bloody nose”: a “limited” first strike by America on North Korea, to stun and sober the regime.

If you’re a South Korean, prone to war jitters, what are you thinking now? After all, you and your countrymen would be casualties in a war.

Furthermore, Trump signaled his intention to nominate Victor Cha as ambassador to South Korea — and then scotched the idea. Cha is an experienced scholar and national-security hand. He is against the abrogation of the free-trade agreement and against the bloody-nose strategy. That is why, according to reports, Trump withdrew him.

This might have been minor news in our country — but you can bet that South Koreans heard about it. These things may matter little to us, but they matter a helluva lot to them. The U.S. is still without an ambassador in Seoul.

So, yes, South Korea is in a seducible condition, and Kim Yo-jong is an effective instrument of seduction, unfortunately.

Remember what we said about Raisa Gorbachev, who made a big impression on Western publics? We joked that she was “the first Soviet First Lady to weigh less than her husband.”

A delicate and dangerous dance is taking place on the Korean Peninsula. This is a time for maximum realism, and some imagination to boot. U.S. diplomacy has to be at its nimblest and shrewdest.

By the way, as regular readers know, I’ve written about a number of North Korean escapees, or defectors. They are some of the bravest people on earth. To find out about Jung Gwang-il, go here. To find out about about Yeonmi Park, go here.


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