Meet You in the Middle
The word spread around the world in a rather strange fashion. One of the most significant efforts to bring stability to the Korean peninsula was moving at a whiplash speed by all measures, so it was not surprising that the reviews were mixed as career diplomats and others whose interest in the region were potentially at risk if the status quo was about to morph into ”what?!” Whole segments of most commentary-filled shows were populated by both naysayers and optimists alike.
The history of the two Koreas is complex and extremely convoluted. Looking back will enable us to look forward for answers. The stretch of time from 1910 to present is filled with sudden gyrations that have convulsed the peninsula throughout the decades. Korean rule under the Japanese began in 1910. Some Koreans still remember their unfair and sometimes brutal colonization, infusing a feeling of suspicion regarding the United States and its allied relationship with Japan concerning the two Koreas. Also, consider how the U.S. has helped the citizens of South Korea protect their constitution while it considers a reunification with a decidedly less democratic North Korea; this makes the Korean challenge a real test for our president and his advisors. That said, the Second World War and the defeat of Japan thrust Korea into a new paradigm. The U.S. and the Soviet Union took possession of the Korean peninsula in the form of a trusteeship, with North Korea administered by the Soviets and South Korea by the U.S.
The family of the present-day leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, has played a pivotal role in the evolution of North Korea and its ideological development. During the occupation of the country by the Japanese, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, Kim Il-Sung, emerged as a leader of the guerilla faction operating in Manchuria and regions of Korea. He had joined the Communist Party and eventually served as a major in the Soviet Red Army until the war ended in 1945. Eventually, he combined all the various factions under his leadership as he took control of North Korea.
Throughout time, the United Nations has attempted to intervene in the Koreas. In 1947, North Korea was modeled on Stalinist lines. The U.S. wanted all the Korea people to hold supervised elections. North Korean leadership did not share the same desire for the people of North Korea. Sensing a future trend that appeared to be developing, the U.S. expressed its apprehension to the UN. The UN did create the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea to attempt to hold supervised elections. It all came to naught when the Soviet Union opposed the commission. South Korea held their elections in 1948. And so the stubborn opposition of the Soviet Union on many matters effecting the U.S. position in the Koreas would continue in subsequent decades.
During the years, North Korean’s desire to invade the south has been thwarted by both China and the Soviet Union as a needless war that would bring in to play the Western alliance and potentially result in a World War. Almost succeeding in 1950, the incursions into South Korea had become so problematic that the UN authorized a U.S.-led intervention force to help South Korea. An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. The idea of a formal peace treaty did not materialize, and the Korea Civil War is still a fact of life, though it seems the two leaders are attempting to work to an end of their division.
In the intervening years, Kim Il-Sung fell out with Nikita Khrushchev, after Khrushchev denounced the Stalin-like personality cult that Kim had adopted. Later, under Leonid Brezhnez, the Soviet leader and Kim began to repair the relationship. This turn back to the Soviets engendered criticism leveled at him by China’s Red Guards who referred to him as a “fat revisionist.” He also had aligned with many totalitarian governments as he continued to advocate for his Juche policy. Juche means self-reliance in Korean and that notion became the ideology of the day. It encouraged agricultural independency and a lack of dependency with a Korean twist of Marxism.
Two factors would greatly change North Korea. Chinese reforms and the Soviet’s loss of the Eastern Bloc left an enormous lack of economic support and trading opportunities. Kim pointed to the reason for collapse of the Soviet Eastern Bloc as a result of their not practicing Juche. Meanwhile, North Korea’s Nuclear program was growing and President Jimmy Carter, in June of 1994, visited Pyongyang but was apparently taken for a ride since he thought he had succeeded in halting their program through negotiations and financial aid. This failure to uphold agreements would trouble future administrations as well.
In July of 1994, Kim Il-Sung died of a heart attack. His son, Kim Jong-Il, took the reins of North Korea. Struggling with famine and other challenges, he created the new policy of Songun. This is the policy under which North Korea operates. “Military First” was embraced and pushed from father, Kim Jong Il, to son, Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong Il’s single focus had created a nation in possession of nuclear weapons and one that his son would bluster that it could attack the U.S. and other points around the world, leaving China, Russia and the U.S. uneasy with the young leader.
What do we know about Kim Jong-un? There are few substantiated biographies. It is speculated that he attended private school in Bern, Switzerland for a number of years where he developed a love of basketball (a profoundly American sport). If this is true, he, unlike his father and grandfather, was exposed to Western culture. The day that Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, said something to the effect that this young man had been left, at a very young age, to run North Korea showed what could have been perceived by Kim as Trump, the father of two young men, expressing some empathy. Trump continued to voice his willingness for the two leaders to sit down. Surprise is expressed by many but the act of tearing up the rule book is uniquely Trump as we have come to know him.
What now? Can these two men meet in the middle for an outcome that serves all the complex interests that are emerging in this resurgence of a Cold War? How about Russia role? Putin must be concerned about losing influence that ties to the Middle East through North Korea and Iran, which are partners in trade and nuclear exploitation with North Korea. Then of course there is China. Often in the UN, China and Russia have shown solidarity in defeating any U.S. resolution regarding sanctions or other punitive measures to stem a real war from evolving. The seeming defiance of Chinese President Xi Jinping, by Kim Jung-un, that appears to have resulted in the train ride Kim took recently to China is the wild card. Russia and China will benefit, but the question is what and how, if the sanctions are removed without much caution.
Remember both Russia and China border North Korea and they will want to have some comfort level as Trump and Kim attempt to meet in the middle. Trump will, I hope, exhibit eyes wide open as he continues his bold maneuvering toward peace. We should all wish him and his team well-deserved success.
Shay McNeal is assistant publisher and editor at large of the Charleston Mercury; she divides her time between Northern Virginia and Charleston.