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Talking North Korea peace has paid off for the talkers, but not for peace

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DonKirk31By Donald Kirk

An interviewer for a radio station in Boston, winding up one of those Q&A’s to which journalists are subjected, asked, What would you do to resolve the North Korean “problem?”

I answered, “I have no solution, no idea, no clue.” While that response might seem like an abject display of ignorance or non-concern, I have yet to read any column or analysis by anyone else who’s got the answer either.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill in Beijing, announces a draft accord in the North Korea nuclear talks on Feb. 12, 2007. / Elizabeth Dalziel / AP

Oh yes, the overwhelming consensus among the commentariat is that we need to engage in “dialogue.” Everyone from Joel Wit, impresario of the oft-quoted “38 North,” to Robert Gallucci, architect of the (failed) 1994 Geneva framework agreement to Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist and former Tokyo bureau chief, believe the Americans and North Koreans have to talk to one another.

As the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson finally churns up the waters not too far from the Korean peninsula, their views are shared by important Koreans, notably Moon Jae-In, leftist front-runner for president. Any number of progressives and liberals say that dialogue is needed, that the North-South standoff will never end if the two sides don’t “engage.”

A professor with a long background in Korea once told me that he knew I was “against negotiations.” That was in response to something I’d written expressing more than a little skepticism considering all previous talks have wound up in agreements that went nowhere.

Actually, I’m not against talking. At the least the interlocutors enjoy the comforts of nice hotels, dinners and drinks. If they’re anything like Christopher Hill, who negotiated a couple of failed agreements more than ten years ago, they have fun giving press conferences that get their names broadcast around the world. Gallucci also is a yakker. Both these guys went on to become university deans.

Ok, so let’s talk, and then what? One word you hear quite often is “freeze.” The North Koreans “freeze” their nuclear and missile programs, and we’ll “freeze” our war games, those annual exercises in which U.S. and South Korean troops put on great displays of military prowess. For the past two or three years, they’ve added “decapitation” of the North Korean leadership to the games ― a word that infuriates the North Koreans. Can’t imagine why. Funny, they don’t hesitate to talk about obliterating the White House.

Hill now admits a “freeze” would never work since you would never know what the North Koreans were freezing. That’s where calls for talks ring hollow. Somewhere, toward the end of any such commentary, you come across a sentence suggesting North Korea should maybe suspend its nuclear and missile programs. Inevitably, these commentaries, in the name of reason, acknowledge the path to agreement would be difficult.


Another theme is the benefits of a peace treaty. The argument is the Korean War “technically” has never ended since all we got in July 1953 was an armistice. Sorry, but the Korean War is long since over, whatever you want to call the document signed in Panmunjom, known forever after as the “truce village.”

Candidate Moon has said he too wants a “peace agreement,” but he couples that call with North Korea saying something about giving up its nukes.

One big problem is that North Korea wants a “treaty” with the U.S. that excludes the South, which never signed the truce. (Rhee Syngman, the Korean War president, did not want a deal that would legitimize division of the Korean peninsula.) Another problem is North Korea would demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops and an end to the U.S.-RoK alliance.

So how do we resolve this thing? Does anyone think the North Koreans will fall into line under Chinese pressure? Who believes a “preemptive strike” on the North’s nuclear and missile facilities would bring lasting peace? These questions are as rhetorical as “decapitating” North Korea’s leadership or nuking the White House. I have no answers ― but will keep looking for one in all those analyses that also fail to provide answers.

Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in the region for decades. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com

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