Perhaps it appears preposterous, but there is a small, impoverished nation in south central Asia that poses an authentic threat to peace in the world. Moreover, that nation considers the United States its worst enemy. You may be surprised that it calls itself a democracy. We know it as North Korea, but the name it has given its self is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – the DPRK
Against long odds two Korean nations have lived and uneasily shared a peninsula together since before what we recall as the Korean War. No treaty ever settled the matter. Fought to a draw in 1953, the South and the North submitted to an armistice because the United States and China decided to abandon the conflict and accept and legitimize two separate Korean nations.
While South Korea forged an authentic democracy with a sturdy capitalistic economy, North Korea stratified into a totalitarian society with three generations of Kims ruling like potentates. Despite a cruelly depressed economy, the Kims forged a military equipped today with intercontinental missiles and nuclear warheads. Holding these aces in an otherwise poor hand, the current Kim, Kim Jong Un, has invited the United States president, Donald Trump, to come to the table and play showdown poker next May in a site yet to be chosen. Our feculent president, having spent a lifetime gambling in real estate, public promotions and private intimacies, abruptly said yes to an offer of face-to-face negotiations with the canny Kim.
Trump, who recently fired his own choice for Secretary of State, now has a new one who has been on the job about two weeks. There is no American ambassador to South Korea because the president has not managed to find someone for the job more than a year into his presidency. Nor is there an undersecretary for Asian affairs in the State Department. That too has escaped Trump’s attention. So far no team has been put together to prepare for this historic summit, to do the groundwork needed for a substantive negotiation on what may produce life or death consequences for unnumbered potential victims.
With many menacing unknowns to ponder, the certainty we must live with is that we have an erratic president in place who is willing to gamble in matters that could produce active threats to world peace. What can we do besides pray the Trump will happenstantially gather around himself some prudent and knowledgeable advisors to prepare his negotiation strategy? The necessary goal is to achieve assurances between the leaders of a set of competing countries, particularly North and South Korea, China, Russia and Japan, along with the U.S., that an avenue to peace and prosperity can be found. The consequences are huge. So far the American people are being asked to trust that Trump, equipped mostly with good intentions, will prevail. Unhappily, I must say, I am not confident that Trump can thread the needle.
Jack Van Der Slik, author of The Korean Crisis: One People, Two Nations, A world on the Brink. WildBlue Press, 2017.