Here’s a hard truth that’s certifiable by any rudimentary review of modern Korean history: The real news about Korea catches almost everyone by surprise.
Who, for instance, would have predicted the outbreak of the Korean War nearly seven decades ago? Who knew, in the depths of South Korea’s economic suffering after that titanic tragedy, that the South would burst into bloom as a major industrial power?
And who would have thought, in the darkest moments of military dictatorship under Park Chung-hee and then Chun Doo-hwan, that Korea would emerge as a democracy complete with national, provincial and local elections?
Those are just a few of the many shocks and surprises that have rocked South Korea since the end of Japanese rule in August 1945 and the emergence of the Republic of Korea in the South three years later. The evolution of North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, founded the next month, has been equally full of surprises, most notoriously its success in producing nuclear warheads and the missiles to send them to distant targets since the late Kim Jong-il ordered the first underground nuclear test in October 2006.
A quick reminder of some of the jolts, for better and for worse, with which most of us in Korea are quite familiar, is by way of getting around to the surprises of the past year and a half.
First, we had the Candlelight Revolution, resulting in the downfall of Park Chung-hee’s daughter Park Geun-hye and the rise of a liberal president, Moon Jae-in. Then, lo and behold, came a stunning reversal of the march toward a second Korean War that seemed possible while Kim Jong-il’s son Kim Jong-un ordered tests of ever more powerful warheads and missiles.
Who would have predicted, as the new year dawned, that Kim III, scion of the dynasty founded by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who orchestrated the invasion of the South in June 1950, would have decided enough was enough and send a team, accompanied by several hundred entertainers and Taekwondo wrestlers, to participate in the Pyeongchang Olympics? And who knew he would actually express “willingness” to discuss giving up his nuclear program?
Can all this flurry of news, including the drama of Kim’s announcement of suspension of nuclear-weapons testing, be for real or are we being horribly misled? Will President Moon and “Respected Leader” Kim come up with a magic formula whereby he really does commit himself to giving up the nuclear program, not just suspending it?
We’re so accustomed to disappointment and disillusionment in dealing with North Korea that it’s hard to be optimistic. Maybe we should just be thankful that Moon and Kim are meeting Friday, and see it as the beginning of an attenuated up-and-down process. For sure, whatever they say or do at Panmunjom, the Moon-Kim dialogue will have a huge effect on whatever happens when President Trump and Kim meet a month or so later.
That’s assuming, of course, that Trump and Kim actually do meet. Trump himself has gone up and down on North Korea like a yo-yo. Was it not just a few months ago that he was threatening to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea? And who can forget his references to Kim as “Rocket Man” and “Little Rocket Man” — the adjective “little” a sneering reminder of Kim’s weight?
Now Trump is reversing field to an extent that has American advocates of reconciliation criticizing him for misleading everyone by saying Kim has already agreed on denuclearization.
Actually, as the usual cast of think-tank analysts and TV yakkers in the swamp of Washington have been loudly noting, Kim has done nothing of the sort. He’s just said he won’t test any more nukes and missiles.
In fact, North Korea hasn’t tested any nukes since its sixth underground test, by far its most powerful, probably a hydrogen bomb, last September. The nuclear test site, which Kim made a show of shutting down, is still functional, according to 38 North, the noted dispenser of inside info about the North’s nuclear and missile program.
Is it not possible, however, to be a little too skeptical if not cynical about North Korea’s assurances and intentions? The reason I ask is we may be in for a surprise, and not all the surprises are bad.
Might Kim have seen the light and decided he has much more to gain, and nothing to lose, by getting along with the South, and with the United States too? In the long history of shocks and surprises, may we dare to fantasize real and lasting peace?
As Moon and Kim meet Friday in Peace House, just south of the North-South line in the Joint Security Area set up in the truce that ended the gunfire in July 1953, the dream lives on.
Donald Kirk has been a columnist for Korea Times, South China Morning Post many other newspaper and magazines. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.