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Don’t Be Cynical About an Olympics Detente With North Korea

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has left [1] open the possibility of Vice President Mike Pence meeting with North Korean officials during his trip to the Winter Olympic games in Seoul, whose opening ceremonies are on Friday. If that happens, Pence would be the highest ranking American official ever to huddle with a delegation from Pyongyang.

At the same time, North Korea is planning to send its highest ranking official ever to the South—Kim Yong-nam [2], the North’s ceremonial head of state and president of the Supreme People’s Assembly. In addition, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s influential sister, Kim Yo-jong, will also be joining the delegation [3], the first time an immediate Kim family member will have set foot in the South.

Is this the long shot diplomatic opening we’ve been waiting for?

It’s easy to be cynical, but I look at this from a unique position. I’ve stared down the barrel of a gun held by a fanatical North Korean spy and watched her blink. It’s why, watching the run-up to the Olympics, amidst levels of cooperation and kinship [4] unseen for years between the two Koreas, I find myself allowing optimism to peek in between the shades.

The details must remain a bit sketchy but at one point during my years working for the State Department at the American Embassy in Seoul, I found myself inside a cell of a foreign intelligence organization alone with a North Korean spy. I’ll call her Miss Park, though I have no idea if even her “real” name was real (other identity details have been altered below). She’d been arrested for espionage. She was on a hunger strike.

I was there because Miss Park may have acquired American citizenship along her complex life journey and one of my jobs at the embassy was to look after the welfare of incarcerated American citizens. Miss Park was trying to starve herself to death to avoid cooperating and it was my task to provide her the same assistance as I would to any other American in jail: to convince her not to die.

Over a handful of visits with a nurse employed by the embassy, I watched Miss Park deny herself food. She was trained to do so. She took small sips of water, she explained, to keep her higher brain functions active enough to allow her to push back against the survival instinct. She was unshakable in her loyalty to her cause. She told me she would begin to give up secrets if she lived long enough, and everything she’d devoted her life to said she should kill herself to prevent that from happening.

Miss Park came not to trust me, but at least to understand that my role was not to pry information from her. So we spoke of family, mine at first to fill the air, then eventually hers. Her son liked the elites’ amusement park he’d once had access to. There was a day when Miss Park bought him shaved ice, some sweet flavor that reminded her of the fruits she’d eaten in the West but which her son had never tasted in real life. As the embassy nurse whispered to me that the prisoner’s vital signs were reaching a critical point and that we should schedule a second visit that afternoon “in case,” I saw Miss Park stare down the angel of death. Then she asked for rice.

Ms. Park is just one person, but she is exactly the kind of person you would least expect to change. She is one of the reasons I continue to believe there is a path that will not lead to war on the Korean Peninsula.

The essence of North Korea is written into its national philosophy of juche [5], which above all emphasizes survival. The Kim family has been remarkably good at that since 1948. They’ve endured total war, the collapse of their patron the Soviet Union, famine, natural disasters, and decades of sanctions. North Korea exists under a survivalist philosophy, not an apocalyptic one. A senior Central Intelligence Agency official has confirmed [6] that Kim Jong-un’s actions are those of a “rational actor” motivated to ensure regime survival. “Waking up one morning and deciding he wants to nuke Los Angeles is not something Kim is likely to do,” the official said. “He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”

The path to some form of peaceful co-existence on the Korean Peninsula lies in understanding survival, and that means North Korea can never denuclearize, a precondition the United States has insisted on before negotiations can move forward. If denuclearization was ever possible, perhaps through some form of security guarantee, the chances were reduced in March 2003 when Saddam Hussein, who had lost his weapons of mass destruction, found his country invaded by the United States. And the possibility evaporated completely when, after Moammar Gaddafi agreed to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program [7], he was driven out of power by American bombs in 2011.

One Korea University professor has argued [8] that Pyongyang’s leaders felt “deeply satisfied with themselves” after Gaddafi’s fall. In North Korea’s view [9], the Libyans “took the economic bait, foolishly disarmed themselves, and once they were defenseless, were mercilessly punished by the West.” Only a national leader bent on suicide [10] would negotiate away his nukes after that.

The last serious attempt at finding a path forward [11] with North Korea was in October 2000, when then-secretary of state Madeline Albright went [12] to Pyongyang without preconditions. A flurry of quiet diplomatic activity followed (I was at the embassy in Seoul and saw it first-hand) as both sides began building the connective tissue, the working-level personal and bureaucratic ties essential to getting down to business. One outcome was a series of extraordinary family reunions between North and South, among relatives who had not seen each other since the 1950s. Those reunions were major media events in the South.

Enthusiasm from the American side dipped sharply after the election of George W. Bush, and the process collapsed completely in 2002 after Bush chucked North Korea into his “Axis of Evil [13]” alongside Iraq and Iran. The last attempt to restart talks took place in February 2012, soon after Kim Jong-il passed away and Kim Jong-un, his son, took over. Washington and Pyongyang held limited discussions resulting in a moratorium [14] on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests, and other activities. The agreement fell apart following a (failed) North Korean satellite launch, and a later successful nuclear test in February 2013. Diplomacy has otherwise not been tried much over the last five years.

Why might there be hope now? Since 2013, North Korea’s ability to deliver more powerful weapons via more accurate missiles has grown. Through one lens, that increases the threat to the United States. (Seoul, within range of overwhelming numbers of conventional weapons, is none the worse; their destruction was assured even prior to the North going nuclear.) Looking at it from Pyongyang’s perspective, however, offers a different picture: the more powerful weapons create a more realistic deterrent. To a regime that values survival at its core, that means a very different starting point for negotiations than in 2000.

The second factor is a long shot: Trump. The president seems unworried about maintaining a consistent policy position. He favors showmanship, the Big Play. His conservative flank is covered. One can imagine him being convinced his legacy could be that of Nixon opening China, the tarnished president who nonetheless is remembered for changing history.

The key lies in removing the precondition [15] that any talks be aimed at denuclearization, and in understanding that diplomacy is never going to be a straight line. That setbacks will occur cannot be a predetermined definition of failure. Among other complications, Kim Jong-un will need to work any progress with America past the hardliners in his government.

Kim Jong-un is indeed North Korea’s supreme ruler, but to imagine he rules without consultation from, at minimum, his generals, is simplistic. Sending the 90-year-old Kim Yong-nam as his representative to the Olympics is a significant choice: Kim has been a Communist Party member since the pre-World War II Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula, has served all three North Korean rulers, was formerly minister of foreign affairs, has extensive overseas experience, and as a veteran of the 1950 war, has unimpeachable credibility inside the government. The U.S. has also carefully and quietly kept Kim Yong-nam off [16] any sanctions list, ostensibly because he is not directly involved in nuclear development.

Despite that level of bureaucratic protection, Kim Jong-un will still need to balance conciliatory steps forward with bellicose gestures directed at a limited but important domestic hardline audience. Perhaps that’s not unlike Trump, who may be covering his own hand by sending Fred Warmbier [2], the father of student Otto Warmbier who died after being incarcerated by Pyongyang and returning to the U.S. in a coma, to attend the Olympics alongside Pence.

North Korea is a nuclear state. That is the starting point to any deconfliction on the Korean Peninsula, not the end goal. Finding peace under those conditions is a long shot, but sometimes taking a risk pays off.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well [17]: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War [18]: A Novel of WWII Japan. He tweets @WeMeantWell.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Don’t Be Cynical About an Olympics Detente With North Korea"

#1 Comment By Paul McDonnell On February 9, 2018 @ 2:22 am

Firstly NK does not need ICBMs for self defense. NK, with chemical, biological weapons, 60+ nukes, guns on Seoul and defense pacts with China has not been under threat of invasion or attack since 1953 (the Clinton administration in 1994 thought about it but quickly rejected the idea). Kim wants ICBMs for prestige and leverage to decouple the US and use the threat as coercion. In 5 yrs time he will have an arsenal (100+) and make small aggressive moves (increased cyber attacks, taking a few SK islands) and no one will want to move against him in case a nuclear war is triggered. He will have successfully contained the US. Nothing (no carrot or stick) will get him to give them up – he has defined himself by them. From this starting point diplomacy is only useful to him to gain concessions and for the US and SK to try and prevent a miscalculation (a very likely event). BTW the media keeps presenting a revisionist story about Libya – an uprising occurred in Libya as result of the Arab Spring. Nuclear weapons would not have prevented an internal uprising. A UN mission prevented him from slaughtering his own people who eventually killed him. Ukraine is a better example of a country the gave up Nuclear weapons and then was invaded.

#2 Comment By cka2nd On February 9, 2018 @ 10:36 am

Knock on wood, I hope Mr. Van Buren’s optimism is more prescient than my pessimism.

#3 Comment By Iron Felix On February 9, 2018 @ 11:25 am

Thank you for this article, Mr. Van Buren.

You link to a CNN report of October 6, 2017 which reports that the CIA believes that NK has no intention of nuking LA. This was no surprise. BUT on October 19, NBC publishes a poll taken October 13-17 which reports that a 53% consider NK the biggest “threat”, an INCREASE from the 41% in July.

This CNN report should have been incorporated into any serious reporting on the situation in Korea, but a WEEK later, a majority of the population of a country which glues itself in front of the TeeVee believes there is a “threat”. Obviously, the media and the politicians have not been telling the people the truth. We call this lying. It is proof that the six or so corporations who own the mass media are deliberately prepping the people for war. In any civilized country, this is a crime. In fact, under international law, making threats of aggressive war-all options are on the table-is a crime, but that is another story.

You are absolutely right when you observe that NK would be foolish to give up its nuclear weapons prior to negotiations. You cite Iraq and Libya. I would add Iran, which actually didn’t have an active nuclear weapons program, but was dragooned into completely unnecessary negotiations to disown them, which it has. But look what’s happening. Once again, the US has broken its word, refusing to end sanctions and adding new ones and trying to reopen the negotiations. You can be sure that Kim Jong Un and his government have drawn the appropriate

What is really shameful is that our cowardly politicians are keeping their mouths shut when they are not joining in the the chorus of war. Only Tulsi Gabbard stands out strongly as a person of integrity. I would encourage readers to let her know we appreciate her efforts to promote negotiations. She will need our help; the vultures will certainly be coming for her.

#4 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 10, 2018 @ 1:31 am

One thing we shouldn’t forget in our emnity against North Korea, is that unlike us to either North or South, they are related to one another. Their blood may prove in the end thicker than allegiance to our empire across the water. Certainly they will be more reluctant to spill it than we are.

#5 Comment By Banger On February 10, 2018 @ 9:31 am

Revisionist history about Libya? Apparantly Mr. McDonnel believes in the mainstream media/government story about Libya and is ignorant of the writings and policies of the neoconservative right (which includes Secretary Clinton). All the secular regimes in the MENA region were targets in the general policy of creating chaos everywhere in order to destroy civil society to be regrouped into relatively powerless fragmented tribes. The “revolt” like many such things was a CIA operation and rather typical and has been repeated in dozens of countries since 1947.

Having said that the article points out the view that North Korea is not an imperial power (Americans always project its intentions onto other countries). There is only one imperial power in the world that is interested in gobbling up conquests and that is the United States which has, also since the end of WWII, seen itself as the New Rome. At first, despite it aggressive intentions, the US created a pretty good international order based on ideas that had been current in the 20’s and 30’s for an international order based on rule-or-law and an aversion for war. But being the most powerful country on earths was way to tempting and little kingdoms within Washington were built to rule the world but in an increasingly incompetent way. This is what North Korea or any country not in the direct sphere of influence of the United States must fear–there is such a thing as history and some readers might take a look at it.

#6 Comment By Iron Felix On February 10, 2018 @ 10:07 am

Paul McDonnell says:

“an uprising occurred in Libya as result of the Arab Spring. Nuclear weapons would not have prevented an internal uprising. A UN mission prevented him from slaughtering his own people who eventually killed him. Ukraine is a better example of a country the gave up Nuclear weapons and then was invaded.”

Libya had the highest standard of living in Africa. For over 40 years, Gaddafi promoted economic democracy and used the nationalized oil wealth to sustain progressive social welfare programs for all Libyans. Under Gaddafi’s rule, Libyans enjoyed not only free health-care and free education, but also free electricity and interest-free loans. Gaddafi was overthrown by jihadis supported by NATO, NOT the UN, as you state.
Ukraine was the victim of a putsch engineered by NATO. Georgian snipers were brought in to kill demonstrators AND police alike in Maiden Square. Nazi shock troops brought down the government and became the backbone of a new government which began pogroms against the Russian speaking population. Russian-majority Crimea voted to return to Russia where it had been for hundreds of years before Khrushchev giver it to his native Ukraine.
There was no Russian invasion of Ukraine any more than there was a Russian attack against Georgia. That was NATO’s puppet Saakashvilli’s project.

#7 Comment By Cornel Lencar On February 10, 2018 @ 12:59 pm

To Paul McDonnell and more:

NK needs ICBMs because the main enemy is not ultimately represented by the people of SK, but by the imperial power that occupies SK and that wants to stay in order to have its guns closer to China’s and Russia’s underbellies. If someone is to day, it should be americans. Enough Korean blood has been spilled.

What NK leader is doing is maybe establishing the long term survival of its line, in an unified Korea. If one imagines a unified, multi-party, democratic Korea (a la German reunification), Kim has good chances to become the long term leader of the opposition or more.

Also, reunification, if happens, will not occur unless the US goes home (China and Russia will also make sure of that). And I would like to see the news: US opposes Korean unification because it cannot remain an occupying force.

#8 Comment By rosemerry On February 10, 2018 @ 2:27 pm

The moralistic pretensions of the USA, which not only has thousands of nukes, has used nukes on people and is a signatory to the NPT, which means that it should be reducing, not “improving” its own arsenal, deciding that NK should discard all nukes and be completely vulnerable to US attacks, are breathtaking. The collective memory of North Korea’s complete destruction in the 1950s and with no peace treaty forthcoming, it is not surprising that the behavior of leaders and inhabitants is wary, to say the least.

#9 Comment By jk On February 10, 2018 @ 4:12 pm

Why doesn’t S. Korea just kick out the US already?

Didn’t Trump campaign on making “allies pay” for US protection/welfare, another campaign promise that means nothing given the hyper-neocon administration.

Though I am very invested, I wouldn’t mind the stock market tanking and going for an extended bull market to shut this idiot up and focus on the US instead for once.

#10 Comment By Mister Facts On February 10, 2018 @ 6:29 pm

“She is one of the reasons I continue to believe there is a path that will not lead to war on the Korean Peninsula.
“The path to some form of peaceful co-existence on the Korean Peninsula lies in understanding survival”

But it was never about NKorea, but us.

We’re the impediment to peace, the stumbling bock, the purveyors of war. We’ve turned SKorea into a military outpost with a view to China and Russia. NKorea serves as a useful pretext. Both Koreas are expendable props for something bigger and larger in our master plan.

So you see, it was never about NKorea or either Koreas.

It was always about us.

#11 Comment By cka2nd On February 11, 2018 @ 1:14 am

Paul McDonnell says: “Firstly NK does not need ICBMs for self defense. NK, with chemical, biological weapons, 60+ nukes, guns on Seoul and defense pacts with China has not been under threat of invasion or attack since 1953 (the Clinton administration in 1994 thought about it but quickly rejected the idea.”

All of those weapons may threaten South Korea and Japan, but they don’t directly threaten the United States, which is the most likely aggressor, as the peoples of Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq again, Pakistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen – did I miss anyone? – can attest.

Paul McDonnell says: “Kim wants ICBMs for prestige…”

There are dozens more dictators around the world than there are nuclear states, so “prestige” doesn’t seem to be a particularly powerful motivator for spending billions of dollars on nuclear armed ICBMs, especially when those billions could be stashed in some foreign bank for one’s retirement.

Paul McDonnell says: “…and leverage to decouple the US and use the threat as coercion.”

Which is completely logical, since neither NK nor its neighbors want to be bombed (chemical, conventional or nuclear) or have to deal with millions of refugees, whereas the U.S. apparently elite couldn’t give a rat’s patoot about them.

Paul McDonnell says: “In 5 yrs time he will have an arsenal (100+) and make small aggressive moves (increased cyber attacks, taking a few SK islands) and no one will want to move against him in case a nuclear war is triggered. He will have successfully contained the US.”

Aside from taking the South Korean islands, all perfectly logical for a regime that is trying to survive. And Dear God, I hope someone contains the murderous, imperialist maniacs running the US through both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Paul McDonnell says: “Nothing (no carrot or stick) will get him to give them up – he has defined himself by them. From this starting point diplomacy is only useful to him to gain concessions…”

The North Korean regime has seen what giving up nukes and chemical weapons did to Iraq and Libya, so again, it is perfectly logical for them to keep them for their own self-preservation and that of their country. And I’m shocked, shocked, that someone would use diplomacy to gain concessions from one’s enemies and opponents. That goes against thousands of years of diplomatic history. NOT.

Paul McDonnell says: “BTW the media keeps presenting a revisionist story about Libya – an uprising occurred in Libya as result of the Arab Spring. Nuclear weapons would not have prevented an internal uprising. A UN mission prevented him from slaughtering his own people who eventually killed him.”

Which media are you talking about? Certainly not the mainstream media. No one disputes that some kind of internal uprising took place in Libya, but I haven’t seen any speculation in the mainstream media that western intelligence services might have been involved in fomenting it or building it up. And the mainstream media bought the “He’s going to slaughter his own people!” justification for the NATO bombing campaign hook, line and sinker, and continue to push it to this day. Also, no one argues that Gaddafi was going to nuke Benghazi (well, some particularly fevered neo-cons and liberal interventionists might, but I hope that not even you take that idea seriously) so, no, nukes would not have prevented an internal uprising. But the threat of them sure could have stopped NATO’s bombing campaign and naval blockade before they even got off the drawing board.

Paul McDonnell says: “Ukraine is a better example of a country the gave up Nuclear weapons and then was invaded.”

Iraq was under a brutal sanctions regime for the 12 years between the ending of their nuclear weapons program and George W. Bush’s invasion, while it only took eight years for Libya to be destroyed by NATO. In contrast, Ukraine wasn’t “invaded” until 20 years had passed, and only after a Western-backed coup d’etat installed a partially fascist Ukrainian government that immediately started to discriminate against Ukrainian Russians and threatened the mostly Russian Crimea and Russia’s Baltic Fleet. But sure, the U.S. would have never intervened in another country for such picayune reasons. A few dozen threatened medical students and an assaulted American citizen or two are much better reasons to invade a country.

#12 Comment By Mike M On February 11, 2018 @ 3:33 am

The North Korean regime subjects its people to murder, starvation and rape. It tramples upon every one of the rights of man. Based on other considerations, I certainly hope that war in Korea is averted, but the only fitting ends to Kim and his cooperators are brutal deaths.

Also, they feed their people propaganda of American cities being destroyed and throw parties celebrating the future deaths of innocents. They are a fundamentally evil regime and no political calculations should let us forget that.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 11, 2018 @ 10:51 am

One day and one step at a time.

#14 Comment By Ken T On February 11, 2018 @ 10:32 pm

By now of course we have seen what actually happened — the smiles and handshakes between North and South, the cheers for the unified team. While Pence sat there scowling like a petulant child, being completely ignored by everyone.

#15 Comment By b. On February 12, 2018 @ 1:13 pm

One item to keep in mind as a historic reference: If the world is entering a significant push towards nuclear proliferation and, inevitably, use of nuclear weapons, the process was initiated when GWB lied himself into an aggressive, illegal war against Iraq over a pretext of nuclear weapons, and it was made the new normal by Clinton, who pushed for the war against Libya, and Obama, who aided and abetted her. If Trump manages to set the world up with a nuclear Iran, it will be no more than fallout from the Bush/Obama/Clinton series of shortsighted, idiotic moves of impudence.

#16 Comment By Michael J On February 12, 2018 @ 8:00 pm

The USA is only trying to divide Koreans and that is its everlasting role in Korea. South Koreans know this, they know their government are stooges.

If ignorant and just dumb Americans don’t understand this basic enduring reality then they know nothing of the USA and how it operates and will continue to operate until it is shattered into pieces and can no longer harm people. This is what should be done by the residents of the USA. Down with the US empire.