SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST COLUMNIST TOM PLATE WRITES – To appreciate the sageuk drama unfolding on the Korean Peninsula, understand that not just two Korean entities have starring roles in history’s cast but three. The first is the Republic of Korea of the south – developmentally accomplished, politically volatile. The second is the Korea of the north – dead-pool polity, cultish culture. The formal entity is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a UN member-state and diplomatic primate. For the DPRK – the mechanistic, militaristic superstructure- negotiating a de-nuclear deal with the U.S. may prove impossible.
But the North Korean people– 25 million souls or so – might now be sensing that going it alone for much longer is impossible, that it is time to re-tribalize, that the agony must be eased. Something has to give. And something just might happen, in part due to the strategic vision and emotional largesse of Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president and his growing fan base.
Yes, his South Korea is not dramatically more unified politically than the Korean Peninsula, and appears to be split between those who prefer to keep what they have, and those who are willing to share. So, yet again, the fate of the Peninsula is linked to the political will and heart of outsiders.
But they may not turn out to be of decisive help. Neighboring Japan always comes up problematic, with its history of occupation of Korea negating its potential contributions. Russia is never irrelevant, but Putin, its President, is focused elsewhere, and will keep out of the path of China. From the U.S. perspective, the unwavering belief is that big China can yank little Pyongyang around at will.
If Washington’s suspicion is right – in fact, it’s questionable – then, ironically enough, the key outside player here is not President Donald Trump (only a tweet or two shy of being self-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize!): After all, the experienced American real-estate mogul is dreadfully inexperienced in international matters. His instincts are brassy and cinematic, not careful and diplomatic; his advisors are less the cream of the U.S. foreign-affairs crop than a clamorous kennel of barky attack-dogs and preening show-dogs. If anyone can poop a potential peace party, is it not growly John Bolton, now the national security chief? Why we go to extremes to appear tough, when the whole point of toughness to avoid extremities? Mr Trump would be better off at the summit solely with First Lady Melania and a suitcase of his better instincts. Leave the hounds behind and when you need advice run it by Singapore’s experienced Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Mr Trump has already said: “The United States is committed to the complete and permanent denuclearization of North Korea…. China can fix this problem easily and quickly…. I know one thing about your president: If he works on it hard, it will happen. There’s no doubt about it.” Our president may be foolish to believe that China’s President Xi’s snapping-fingers can so blithely bring the missile-nuclearized North Korea to its pacific senses. (The pat notion that the ideology of communism blurs borders and automatically makes irrelevant national interests is sophomoric.) But he is not a fool to hope there is something un-ordinary about Mr Xi (“a very respected man,” Trump actually says).
On some level, Mr Trump must be aware that he is no Xi. It is the latter’s genetic lineage and lifetime of hard learning and thorough training that served to put him at the top of the new colossus. In the matter of Korea, in fact, this could be Mr Xi Jinping’s moment of self-definition – and who knows, a more glorious peace-making moment for him may never emerge, no matter how many terms he serves. Great leaders step into a crisis because they know someone has to; political poseurs and bumbling bureaucrats will duck and scurry — cautious beyond sincerity. Even so, China’s President is burdened by past Chinese diplomacy that in style and substance has been so subtle and cautious as to risk being null. Can Mr Xi – perhaps behind the scenes – pull off the impossible: help seal the beginning stage of a serious deal in Singapore, should the much-hyped summit take place?
Under his government, China’s mandarin-nerd approach in diplomacy is giving way to one with more pop. This is apparent at the United Nations and at other international venues, such as the World Economic Forum in Davos. Having cooperated in the sanctions against Pyongyang, Mr Xi could now help organize, very quietly, a blockbuster bailout and security guarantee via a condominium-like agreement with Washington, all the current tension notwithstanding. His government would certainly have credibility; Mr Xi Jinping may have the right stuff. Political advisers of the special mettle of Mr Wang Qishan or Mr Wang Huning might whisper in his ear that the beleaguered Mr Trump might fork over a very nice return indeed for a Nobel Peace Prize setup.
The optimism in me likes this scenario, but optimism and Korea go together as rarely as sunshine and Chongqing. This takes us back to the two (or three) Koreas and the return of tribalism. History tells us that outside powers do not worry excessively about providing probity for smaller powers. In this analysis Mr Kim Jong-un’s most likely savior or guarantor is not Beijing or Washington but Seoul. Republic of Korea’s Lee Jae-in is eagerly waiting to deal for real (nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize). It may be getting close to the moment when the two Koreas begin to fully accept that a brighter future is to be found mainly in their own stars and in no one else’s heart. It may be impudent, but it is also necessary to ask: Who really, sincerely cares about Korea besides Koreans?
Columnist Tom Plate, the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, has been writing about Asia since 1996. He has interviewed South Korean presidents and is the author of the Giants of Asia book ‘Conversations with Ban Ki-moon’. An earlier version of this column appeared in the South China Morning Post. (c) Professor Tom Plate, 2018