Having No Intention to Solve a Conflict: Thoughts on the Korean Peninsula the Last Few Weeks

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Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s weekend visit to North Korea is seen by some as a way to inform the North that the U.S. is not prepared to negotiate on larger issues but simply sending a personal representative of the President to retrieve the remaining hostages. It is true that Clapper is not a diplomat per se. But it should be remembered that the first DNI, John Negroponte, subsequently became Deputy Secretary of State. It should also be recalled that the foundational document of inter-Korean relations, the Joint Statement of July 4, 1972, came about because Park Chung Hee’s KCIA chief visited his counterpart in Pyongyang. North Korea likely has greater respect for intelligence chiefs than chief diplomats. One could argue, in a way, that it is more meaningful for the American DNI or Defense Secretary to visit North Korea than it would be for the Secretary of State. Of course, in October 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang, but in return for the visit to the White House of Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, then the second most powerful figure in the North.

As to the visit of the three senior North Korean officials to Incheon early last month — the so-called “North Korean Incheon landing” — it’s astonishing that the promise of such an unprecedented delegation, which included North Korea’s number two figure, could have fizzled so fast. It’s easy to blame the North for reliably being unpredictable and unrealistic in its demands. And it’s also easy to think “What’s the big deal about a bunch of balloons?” flown by South Korean activists for the North to get so upset. But to the North these balloons, which reportedly contained “subversive materials” critical of Kim Jong Un, including DVDs, USB sticks, and even U.S. dollars, understandably provoked an incendiary response. While South Korea could contend it was simply protecting its citizens’ freedom of speech by its non-interference, and only sought to prevent scuffles between local residents and activists, it’s hard to imagine the ROK could not have done more to get the conservative activists to forgo their ballooning to allow the proposed high-level talks, that could have occurred as early as October 30, to proceed. For all her speeches promoting inter-Korean relations and reunification, such as in Washington and Dresden, President Park simply does not appear sincere in practically implementing her vision for a peaceful Korean Peninsula when she can’t or won’t persuade these activists from sending their antagonizing balloons northward. This gets me to the last point.

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As I also follow Israel-Palestinian relations quite closely, a common theme with the two Koreas comes up. It boils down to this: rhetoric aside, the preference of Israel and South Korea seems to be to manage a core conflict but not solve it. This means to maintain the status quo and do nothing consequential that would threaten the status quo. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians since the most recent Gaza war clearly indicates not the slightest intention on Israel’s part to bring about a two state solution anytime in the future. That means all the effort John Kerry put in between July 2013 through April this year shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah was for naught because the Israeli government simply put on a charade that it was interested in a two-state solution. But what it really means, from Israel’s bottom-line, is in the Palestinian leadership there is no partner for peace — and probably never will be a Palestinian leadership with which Israel would engage. So Israel was really telling Kerry and his team, “We are for peace and a two state solution” but only with Palestinians who have never and will never exist. Israel’s solution for the Palestinian problem in fact excludes a two-state solution.

“To all those who demonstrate against Israel and in favor of a Palestinian state, I say something simple: I invite you to move there; we won’t give you any problem,” Netanyahu said, during a meeting of the Likud Knesset faction (11/10/14).

There are lots of differences between the Palestinians, who are under military occupation and don’t truly have their own state and defined borders, and North Korea. But certainly South Korea under its present administration seems to have a de facto policy of “it’s better not to solve a problem than solve it.” At best it seems that this South Korean government is waiting for the day when North Korea is on its knees begging to be rescued from its plight than to invest anything that might give a semblance of recognition to the legitimacy of the Kim Jong Un regime. Much as Israel seems to really be saying to the Palestinians, South Korea’s apparent message to the North is “your future will only be under our terms, never yours. What’s to negotiate?” Israel has the military, political and economic power to compel the Palestinians toward their will, and knows as a consequence, it may have to deal with a potential third intifada. But South Korea is dealing with a heavily-armed nuclear North Korea, which time and again has defied predictions of demise or collapse. If the DPRK is probing to come to some sort of accommodation with the ROK, in an uncertain regional environment, the message Seoul sent to Pyongyang by allowing the balloons to fly — at the risk of not holding high-level talks — is of genuine disinterest in changing the status quo.

In both cases, Israel and South Korea take for granted American backing for their de facto policies. How long can that kind of unquestioned backing continue?♦

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