TOM PLATE WRITES – With friends like China and the United States, it might seem that North and South Korea would have no need for enemies; but then again, of course, they also have each other, and then again it might be said that each is its own worst enemy. For many Americans, the Korean Peninsula seems quite far away, while for many Chinese, it seems all too close. This double diplomatic helix of symmetry and asymmetry has produced one of the greatest geopolitical despairs of our time. But diplomatic history over the centuries does offer the lesson, easily forgotten, that little is forever. What if things did change?
Would the Sino-U.S. relationship – tense, roiling – benefit from a new Peninsular calm? My sense is that the gain would be enormous, but, documents a stunning new book of revelatory scholarship (A Misunderstood Friendship, by scholars Zhihua Shen and Yafeng Xia, Columbia University Press): “Chinese policy toward North Korea is trapped in a dilemma.” Beijing has always regarded North Korea almost like a sliding door it controls, as a geopolitical border buffer. It just cannot bring itself to see why that breathing room might be worth upsetting just to improve the life of Koreans. For its part, Washington, ‘defending democracy’, has always adored South Korea as a military-and-intelligence super-base, peeping northwest toward Beijing as well as north toward Pyongyang. A less conflicted Korean Peninsula might undermine the stated reason for U.S. boots on its ground – a consummation passionately to be avoided, the Pentagon would surely feel.
Yes, it is a kind of game of thrones. In North Korea this past weekend, a military extravaganza to ‘celebrate’ the 70th anniversary of the Democratic Peoples Republic was offered as fearful feast for outside hungry eyes, not to mention for home consumption. What a wonderful, bold gesture for peninsula demilitarization a dramatic cancellation by the young Kim Jong-un would have offered the world. But no, this was not to be. Largesse and graciousness from Pyongyang? It is thus something of a comfort to us policy-peaceniks that, from his Washington throne, President Trump got such strong domestic push-back on his oafish desire for a ridiculous military parade of his own.
As a second Kim-Trump summit is uncertain, it is against this dreary backdrop that a man who is clearly special at a time of special opportunity comes on stage to raise hope. Let us helicopter over to the iconic Blue House in Seoul, where – shrugging off discouragements, weighed down by poisonous dog-eat-dog South Korean politics – Mr Moon Jae-in, the elected president of the Republic of Korea, soldiers on in search of breakthrough. His spirits lifted by the belief that history may finally be providing some positive wind, the former human-rights lawyer who was behind June’s Singapore Summit, who has met with the North’s Kim Jung-un more than once, and who humbly receded when Trump lusted for a one-on-one with the Pyongyang peacock, is not giving up. A child of poverty in a large family, a spirited student organizer, a devotee of the Sunshine Policy for reconciliation with the North initiated by the late Kim Dae-Jung (the first South Korean leader to meet with a North Korean head of state, which the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize came to him), Moon is on a mission for what sometimes seems like Mars.
He has been buoyed by a strong team, particularly his Foreign Minister, Kang Kyung-wha, the first woman ever to hold that position and a proud mentee of former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, himself once an ROK foreign minister. But how much help can be expected from erstwhile ally America? The Washington establishment seems to expect some sort of miraculous overnight de-nuclear collapse capitulation by the North, well prior to the kind of rock-solid security insurance policy from the U.S. that would render such unilateral nuclear disarmament a rational move.
It is unclear how long Trump will remain in the White House. As the late American playwright Arthur Miller depicted iconic Willy Loman in his masterpiece ‘Death of a Salesman’: “He’s a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake.” A crippled American president would be a weak reed to lean on, but whatever his motives and however shaky his Presidency, Mr Trump has said he wishes to continue the Singapore process. (Can we even imagine the stuffily moralistic Michael Pence, U.S. vice president, bringing himself to risk the ‘sin’ of visiting Pyongyang in search of peace?)
So Moon Jae-in and his very good foreign minister are rather out there all alone. The Korean Peninsula bifurcation will not be bridged by those for whom continued division offers such familiar comfort. The game now belongs to the leaders of South – and for that matter North – Korea to win or lose. In December, the Nobel Committee in Oslo will announce its 2018 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He is not known to be on the short list for that prize, but he should be.
If the quiet man in the Blue House does prove the transformative force bringing a measure of humane common sense to the peninsula, neither Washington nor Beijing may fully grasp the profound and impact his effort might have on their relationship. Like better weather, better diplomacy can be a powerful force that can change things overnight. Right now, the sunshine policy of President Moon may be the best elixir for Beijing and Washington out there, even as they may be among the last to realize this. The foreign policy establishments of the two superpowers should very carefully calculate whether this great South Korean foreign-policy visionary is getting enough of their help.
South China Morning Post Columnist Tom Plate is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University, vice president of the Pacific Century Institute, and author of the book ‘Conversations with Ban Ki-moon.”This column appeared more than a week ago in the SCMP, one of the world’s leading newspapers.