Christine Ahn, policy analyst with the Korea Peace Network, had what appeared to be good news as she opened a conference in Washington with the portentous title, “Off Ramps to War: Paths to Building Peace with North Korea.”
Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student accused of having torn a banner from a wall as a souvenir on what was to have been his last day on a typical Pyongyang tour, was coming home after 17 months’ imprisonment.
Ahn neglected to say, however, that Warmbier had been in a coma for months, the victim of beatings that had left him limp when last photographed, held up by prison guards during a tearful court appearance at which he was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor.
Details of Warmbier’s suffering would definitely have interfered with the message of the conference, all about the mistakes of U.S. policy toward North Korea, the need for dialogue and a “peace agreement,” if not a treaty, to mark closure on the Korean War. The message was: sanctions, bad; talk, good.
The stars of the show, at the Elliott School of International Affairs of George Washington University, were William Perry, defense secretary during the presidency of Bill Clinton, and Bruce Cumings, whose books on Korean history, particularly the Korean War, reflect his deep distrust of U.S. policy. Cumings quoted Perry saying, “We have to deal with North Korea as it is, not as we wish it to be,” and Perry repeated the aphorism.
If there was one topic that neither Perry nor Cumings wanted to discuss, however, it was “North Korea as it is” — that is, a brutal dictatorship where no one guilty of disrespect, much less disloyalty, is safe, especially a young American student convicted of a stupid prank. Oh sure, North Korea does bad things, they seemed to be saying, but you have to talk to those you don’t like if you’re going to come to terms.
These two celebrity experts preferred, however, to gloss over if not ignore the issue of human rights, which no doubt they would have thought it naive or irrelevant to mention, while blaming the United States for the breakdown of the 1994 Geneva framework agreement for shutting down the North’s nuclear program. Clearly, they thought that deal had worked out fine, forget about the North’s highly enriched uranium program revealed in 2002.
The assumption was the United States was to blame for North Korea kicking out the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency who’d been monitoring the Yongbyon nuclear complex to make sure the North did not fire up the reactor needed for developing nukes from plutonium. And, of course, you had to blame the United States for the North’s pulling out of the nuclear non-proliferation agreement.
Both Perry and Cumings wanted to convey the reality that Kim Jong-un was there to stay and we had better deal with him. Perry’s proposal: “We should go to China and say, ‘Let’s you and me solve the problem together.’”
How different that idea was from Trump’s understanding with President Xi Jinping about stopping North Korea from being bad was not clear.
“If we could put together a diplomatic strategy which offered security assurances, we would have a chance of success,” Perry said. The goal would be “a platform by which we can roll back” — “create a dialog” — maybe “a peace agreement.” Oh yes, “stopping exercises” — that is, U.S. and South Korean war games — “would be a reasonable basis for a freeze” of North Korean testing.
Most troubling about Perry’s remarks was he had nothing new to say or offer — no more than the two former presidents whom he criticized in equal doses — George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “We never had a negotiating strategy that made sense,” he said. Nor did Perry.
Cumings placed his hopes in the oft-stated desire of South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, to open dialogue. Never mind that North Korea spurned Moon’s call for an end to their nuke-and-missile program. Moon is “walking a tight rope,” said Cumings, between his desire for dialogue and pressure from Washington and the unpredictable Donald Trump.
Good thing, as these experts spoke, we didn’t know the sad saga of Otto Warmbier. No need for such a distraction from their yarns of U.S. cruelty and stupidity as portrayed at a forum on the fantasy of peace with a regime dedicated, as Perry had to acknowledge, to “the sustainment of the Kim Dynasty.