The following column by Tom Plate appeared in the Opinion Section of China Daily, the official English language newspaper in Beijing:
Recently, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea threatened to nullify the Armistice Agreement inked in 1953, an apparent move to exert pressure on the United Nations Security Council while the latter was busy discussing new sanctions against Pyongyang.
But the DPRK’s threat is not meant to “resume” the war. On the contrary, observers in Beijing feel it is a desperate effort to bring the United States back to the negotiation table.
During his recent trip to the DPRK, former basketball star Dennis Rodman might have come across to the world as totally ridiculous in the role of self-appointed emissary to restore peace on the Korean Peninsula. But somehow his effort did make sense.
According to the “Worm”, as Rodman was sometimes called in his active playing days, DPRK leader Kim Jong-un doesn’t really want war with the US but just a phone call from US President Barack Obama to chat about their shared love of basketball, which is a clear message that Pyongyang wants to engage with Washington even after conducting its third nuclear test. However, the “basketball diplomacy” didn’t work as US Secretary of State John Kerry denied the former NBA star any diplomat’s role amid rising tensions between Washington and Pyongyang.
Even so, doesn’t a Rodman just sort of fit in there? What might that be? Perhaps Kim Jong-un will seize his current moment in the Rodman-engineered world media spotlight and agree to revive his country by developing the national economy.
Now may be the time for a big change of direction. Not only is Kim Jong-un in the first phase of his leadership but so too is his counterpart in the Republic of Korea, Park Geun-hye, the first woman president of the ROK. Perhaps she can bring the magic of a woman’s touch to the roughhouse macho politics of the Korean Peninsula. What’s more, she heads the world’s 11th largest economy, which is an ally of the US.
It is true that Kim Jong-un can claim none of her advantages. But he is new to the job – and in political terms the world is still according him his “honeymoon” period. The same is true for Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and China’s new top political leader, Xi Jinping.
And then you have the important “old hands” including Obama, in the early months of his second term, and – perhaps as significantly – UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
If Asia, the world’s largest continent, could use anything more helpful than an end to the technical state of war on the Korean Peninsula, it’s hard to see right away what it would be.
The late Warren Christopher, former US president Bill Clinton’s first secretary of state, once told me that the tense Peninsula invariably hit the top five on any US president’s foreign policy worry list. The DPRK issued the new threat after Rodman flew out of the country. However, if the DPRK couldn’t force the US back to negotiations by conducting a nuclear test, it would be even harder for it to achieve the goal with the new threat.
What a dramatic lift a new deal for the Korean Peninsula would give not just to Asia but to the entire world as well. Ban Ki-moon, accomplished former foreign minister of the ROK, is eager to help defuse in any way possible the tension between Pyongyang and Seoul. Indeed, he probably would give almost anything to see a major improvement in peninsular relations before he leaves office in 2016. To this end, the cautious but whip-smart UN leader will always select negotiations over threats as the way forward.
Maybe it’s time for a high-level visit from one of the above-mentioned leaders to the DPRK. Of course, none of this will make any sense if deal-seeking VIPs are allowed to only shoot baskets and fire off jokes. Rodman has already done that. Something else – new and dramatic – has to happen. What’s needed is for the DPRK leader to smell the opportunity to change the course of history.
Kim Jong-un needs to seize the moment and receive some VIP delegations to hammer out terms to formally end the Korean War, to offer a denuclearization plan, and to propose the outlines of an economic-development master plan that is plausible and credible.
Clown job or not, Rodman’s fast break to the DPRK did draw the world’s attention anew to the Korean Peninsula. Because of his status as a famous athlete – which usually counts for more in the US than that of a true artist – he can turn on the brightest lights on any court on which he chooses to play. Maybe the US should keep sending American celebrities to Pyongyang. What’s the harm, especially if it somehow helps pave the way for serious people to try to do the right thing?
The author is a veteran journalist and distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.