WASHINGTON ― Uh-oh. Watch for all the soothsayers putting in their two cents’ worth (or two won) on the future of the Korean Peninsula, post-PyeongChang.
Beware of the cognoscenti with dire forecasts of capitulation to the evil Northers, with hopeful words of peace at last, with demands for cancellation of U.S.-South Korean military exercises, with pleas for more and bigger war games to show Kim Jong-un he can never “drive a wedge” between those “ironclad” allies, the United States and South Korea.
Modern Korean history is on a roller-coaster ride whose outcome most of us cannot predict, even though quite a few are doing so. We don’t know how hard Kim, through his surrogate Ri Son-gwon, chief negotiator in Tuesday’s get-together at Panmunjom, is going to bargain in the run-up to the opening of the Games on Feb. 9. Nor do we know whether the bargaining will go on during the Games, and we certainly don’t know what’s going to happen soon afterward when we’re back to life as usual and U.S. and South Korean forces are warming up for their annual war games.
OK, having made clear how easy it is to misjudge the future, immediate or long-range, on the Korean Peninsula, I’ll go out on a limb and predict the Games will go off without much of a hitch. North Korea will send a team down to Pyeongchang; North Korean athletes and officials will preen before the world’s media; and the biggest stories from the Games will not be who wins what but which North Koreans are shaking hands with which South Koreans, how sincere their smiles are and exactly what they are murmuring to one another.
Then what? It’s the long aftermath that gets a little tricky. You don’t have to look hard here to find people who are sure President Moon Jae-in is falling into a trap set by Kim to ensnare him into more or less having to accede to whatever he wants, beginning with the breakup of the U.S.-ROK alliance.
Some are even saying Moon will have to promise the Northers he’ll ask the Americans to give up on this year’s war games after he persuaded President Trump in one of their phone calls to postpone them until late March after the Paralympics that follow the Olympics. They love to point out that his chief of staff, Im Jong-seok, served more than three years in prison for arranging the visit of the leftist heroine Lim Su-kyung to a youth festival in Pyongyang in 1989 in defiance of the national security law.
Then again, Moon has been a grave disappointment to the leftists at the forefront of the Candlelit Revolution that lofted him to the presidency in the special election last May. He has a funny way of saying North Korea has to stop its nuclear program no matter how friendly North and South Korean negotiators seemed at Panmunjom, and he’s called for strengthening South Korea’s armed forces.
A sign of Moon’s toughness is that North Korean propaganda has already taken to besmirching him as an American tool. The point is Moon may not be a pushover for the North though he dreams of his place in modern Korean history as the one who brought about North-South rapprochement.
Would Kim Jong-un flex his country’s muscles by ordering missile tests while the Games are going on? Maybe not, but surely he’ll want to shoot up a few more in anticipation of U.S.-ROK military exercises. What if Moon does nothing to slow them down while his military people, in no mood to concede anything, cooperate with the Americans?
For that matter, how long will President Trump support North-South dialogue? Maybe Trump was correct in saying Kim Jong-un made his great overture to the South in response to pressure engineered by his policies, including stiffened sanctions.
Might Trump, after the Games, reverse himself yet again and gamble on a pre-emptive strike against North Korean missile and nuclear sites? A lot of voices in Washington are urging him to do so. They’re saying go for it, North Korea won’t fire in retaliation as feared.
The speculation gets really wild when it gets around to the danger of a nuclear strike by North Korea or the United States or both. I don’t know what’s going to happen after the Olympics, but I’m betting no one is going to be firing or dropping weapons of mass destruction.
That’s about as much I would predict. Otherwise, there’s no telling how the sides will come to terms, or respond, in the next act in the great drama of Korean history.