One of the benefits of getting old is remembering when you’ve seen the same scene play out before and where it led. As everyone gets all excited about the reunification of Korea — people are even talking about Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize, for crying out loud — Max Boot reminds us that we’ve been here before. More than once, in fact.
The meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea was acclaimed as “historic.” The two leaders hugged, “smiled broadly, shook each other’s hand vigorously and toasted each other with glasses of champagne.” Reporters noted that the “opening formalities seemed surprisingly relaxed, exceeding the expectations of many people, including perhaps those of the principals themselves. The South Korean leader said we must “proceed together on a path of reconciliation and cooperation.” The North Korean leader replied that “you will not be disappointed.”
Sound familiar? It should, because the news coverage of the 2000 meeting between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang parallels the euphoria over Friday’s meeting in Panmunjom between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il’s son. If anything, the 2000 meeting produced more tangible results: Not only declarations about ending the Korean War and uniting the two countries, but also concrete steps toward creating a joint South Korean-North Korean industrial park in Kaesong , allow South Korean tourists to visit the North, and to reunify families long divided by the demilitarized zone. Between 1998 and 2008, South Korea provided some $8 billion in economic assistance to North Korea in the hope that all of this aid would create a kinder, gentler regime. Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts.
And it led to…nothing. To a now-fully nuclear North Korea, if anything (though they still can’t seem to actually hit anything with their missiles). I remember studying Kim Il-Sung, the current dictator’s grandfather and the original dictator of North Korea after World War 2, back in the 80s when I was coaching debate. We used the situation in Korea in many different arguments that involved triggering nuclear wars. This has been a longstanding pattern in that family of brutal dictators.
They essentially play their own one-person good cop/bad cop scenario, lurching between threatening rhetoric and peaceful rhetoric. The periods where they play bad cop are so lurid and over the top that the periods when they play good cop seem like a welcome relief and everyone says, “Well finally, he’s being reasonable.” No, he’s being manipulative and you’re incredibly gullible. All of this is very shrewd and it is calculated to elicit precisely that naive response.
Boot’s reaction — “Yada, yada, yada…there is very little of substance here” — is spot-on. There is a reason why Kim wanted a nuclear arsenal, as Boot points out, and it is because he views it as “his guarantor of regime — and indeed personal — survival.” He is not going to give up that arsenal. No, what is going on here is what has already gone on many times before. Kim is merely “pursuing his family’s old policy of mixing provocations such as missile tests with peace offensives designed to convince the West to relax sanctions and extend his odious regime a life line. We would be well advised not to fall for this gambit — again.”