About those euphoric Korea peace talks: A trip down memory lane

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk

Don’t hold your breath. We’ve been disappointed so often in moves toward North-South reconciliation that it’s hard to believe any face-to-face talks between President Moon Jae-In and North Korea’s “respected leader” Kim Jong-Un will lead to resolution of a nuclear crisis that’s only worsened in recent years.

But wait! Don’t rule out success either. Isn’t that the way it’s gone in modern Korean history ever since the devastating tragedy of the Korean War? So much happened, unexpectedly, both good and bad, that we cannot help but have hope. As the song goes, “Maybe this time” ― maybe this time we’ll get lucky.

The quick and easy interpretation of Kim Jong-Un’s acquiescence to much that Moon wants is that he’s keeping up the charm offensive that he initiated by agreeing in his New Year’s message to send a team to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and then sending his younger sister, Yo-Jong, to the opening. His strategy, say the skeptics, is to “drive a wedge” between South Korea and its American ally.

Korean Central Intelligence Agency Director Lee Hu-rak, left, met North Korea’s founding dictator Kim Il-Sung on Nov. 3, 1972 in Pyongyang. / JoongAng Ilbo

Then again, optimistically, might Kim Jong-Un have wearied of squandering resources on nukes and missiles while his dilapidated economy suffers still more under sanctions imposed by the U.N. and the U.S.? It’s easy to see he’s looking for a face-saving way out of hardship by showing his yearning for peace, his desire for North and South to get along at last.

Accepting that view, however, we have to believe that maybe sanctions have worked and has decided the best way out of the dilemma is to come on as if the nuclear problem was a passing phenomenon. Tempting though it might be to believe that interpretation, I seriously wonder who’s buying it.

There are just too many reasons, going back to not-so-ancient history, to doubt Kim’s willingness to reverse all that he’s said and come to terms with South Korea and then the U.S., both of which are demanding denuclearization, meaning dismantlement of the structure that the Kim dynasty has built up all these years to assert the North’s membership in the elite club of nuclear weapons powers.

When I first visited Korea in 1972, as correspondent for the Chicago Tribune based in Tokyo, I too was caught up in the good-will reflected in the Red Cross talks between North and South Koreans in Seoul. Lee Hu-Rak, the legendary KCIA director, had visited North Korea and met Kim Il-Sung, the dynasty founder and grandfather of Kim Jong-Un. Would the talks bring about reunions of members of thousands of families divided by the Korean War, to normal inter-Korean commerce by road, to mail and telephone contacts?

All the while, of course, Kim Il-Sung plotted for success in a field that no one other than a few intelligence analysts imagined. North Korean physicists and engineers had been working on nukes for years. We had no idea.

Think of the disappointments since then ― the North-South agreement of 1991 on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the framework agreement between the U.S. and North Korea in Geneva in 1994 under which the North was to give up its entire nuclear program, the first North-South summit in Pyongyang between the late Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Jong-Il in the era of “Sunshine” in June 2000, the second North-South summit between the late Roh Moo-Hyun and Kim Jong-Il in October 2007. Then there were those four-party and six-party talks ― Christopher Hill, the U.S. envoy, seriously believing he had brokered lasting agreements in 2007 just because the North made a show of signing on.

A lot of people think, no harm in talking, but talking doesn’t always bring substantive results. Agreements with North Korea seem made to be broken. Pro-northers, accusing U.S. officialdom of refusing to meet the North Koreans, say, sit down with them and work it out.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tried to counter such glib talk by saying he’d be glad to chat with the North Koreans any time but they’ve “gotta talk about giving up their nukes.” Now we’re led to believe Kim Jong-un is “willing” to discuss everything with the U.S. as well as the South. Just don’t threaten me, he’s implying, by staging those war games.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m all for an enduring North-South agreement. I’ll believe it when I see it, not on paper but in action.