|Breakfast in Korea. To the surprise of one Vice reporter, it's what's for dinner!|
Seems like a long time since he's hit one out of the Friedmanian lunacy park like this:
SEOUL, South Korea — Some stories have to be experienced to fully grasp — the Korea crisis is one of them. I arrived in Seoul on the evening of May 28. As I was dressing for breakfast the next morning, I was jarred by a news alert ringing on my phone: North Korea had just fired a short-range ballistic missile that had landed in the sea off its east coast.Grammar salad in the first clause ("stories" is the subject of passive "be experienced" but not the active "grasp" that follows it, and when you're trying to parse it you start wondering if stories have to be experienced like Jimi Hendrix—"Has this story ever been experienced, well I have"—and you're in a state of collapse before you get to the first dash), and the implication, because we do know what he means, that he doesn't expect us to understand the story he's about to tell.
I waited for the sirens to tell us to go to the hotel shelter, as happened when I was in Israel during a Hamas rocket attack. But there were no sirens. Nothing. The breakfast buffet was packed. The mood was: Another North Korean missile test? Oh, pay no attention to our crazy cousins. Could you pass the kimchi, please?North Korean missile tests are deplorable, but they never go off course enough to land in downtown Seoul. They either blow up on the pad or land harmlessly in the water, far to the northeast. That's why they're tests. There is no reason to head for a shelter.
Eventually, through a good deal of equally startled discussion of how unafraid South Koreans are of being bombed by North Korea, he gets down to the nugget of exactly what they are afraid of:
After a couple of days of such discussions, I realized that America is now the odd man out in this drama. Why? Because China and South Korea have one thing in common: The thing they fear most is not a North Korean nuclear missile blowing them up. It’s North Korea either blowing itself up — economically collapsing under the weight of sanctions — or being blown up by America.
That would spill refugees and fissile material into China and South Korea, presenting both with a huge cleanup bill and China with a possible united Korea with a nuclear weapon next door.This understanding on the South Korean side clearly played a huge role in the May presidential elections giving the job to Moon Jae-in of the relatively left Democratic Party, which is the one most oriented to diplomacy with the North. Between the erratic Kim Jong-eun and the erratic Donald J. Trump, there's more potential progress in the situation to be made by working with the former (in conjunction with China, on which the North is still completely dependent). Tension can be reduced with confidence building measures of various sorts, and the long work of persuading the North to pull back from the aggressive nuclear posture can go on.
Whereas the US, at the moment, can't be relied on at all.
(Friedman doesn't mention the essential fact that the North Korean regime isn't crazy on this issue, though they could be wrong: their view is based on the history of the US mounting regime-changing operations against countries that decide not to be nuclear—Iraq, Libya—and not against countries that keep their bombs, including Pakistan, Israel, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. I should add that as far as I'm concerned the Libya operations weren't meant for regime change, but nevertheless that is where they ended up. So, following the 70 years of conventional thinking on unconventional weapons, they continue to believe a nuclear deterrent is their best defense.)
The singing horse angle is the old story of the jester-saint Nasreddin Hoja (Friedman vaguely calls it a "medieval fable", and to be honest I thought it was Jewish myself, but it comes from Sufi folk tradition):
Nasreddin was caught making a snarky remark about the Sultan, and arrested and sentenced to death on charges of heresy and sedition. No apologies or pleas could bend the Sultan's anger, but Nasreddin finally said, "O Sultan, live forever! You know I'm the most skillful teacher in the kingdom; if you delay the sentence for a year, I'll teach your favorite horse to sing."
Which piqued the interest of the Sultan, whose anger was beginning to cool, and he agreed: "But if you fail, you'll regret that you weren't beheaded today."
Nasreddin's friends came to visit him in his cell, and were surprised to find him not in terror but good cheer. "Are you crazy?" they asked. "You can't teach a horse to sing!"
"That's true," said Nasreddin, "but I have a year of life, and the Sultan might change his mind, or he might die, or be replaced, and I could be pardoned by his successor according to the custom, or the horse might die, and then the Sultan could hardly blame me and he'd have to let me go.
"Or maybe, failing all that, the horse will start singing." (Based on a WikiBooks version with lots of terrific Nasreddin tales)Friedman comments,
And that is our North Korea policy. Waiting for something to solve this insoluble problem. Waiting for a horse to sing.Which is a startling misunderstanding of what he should have learned from the story, not to mention all the sanguine South Koreans he's been talking to at the breakfast buffet. Which is in the first place that it's not a crisis, or even an insoluble problem. It's certainly a problem from hell, and has long been one, especially since the last Bush administration reneged on the Clinton administration's deal with the North, refusing to build the promised light reactors, and the Kim Jong-il regime went ahead and built that bomb. And it's true that the US can't really influence the situation under the Trump regime, where we don't know what the policy is or even who's in charge.
But the answer, what the US ought to be doing (beyond letting Rodman do Rodman, which can't do any harm—if he's really an emissary from Trump that's OK with me) is not thinking of it as a crisis. It's our own Emperor Trump who's in the Sultan's role right now, the unpredictable autocrat, and South Korea that's sitting in jail hanging out with its friends, staying courageous, and doing the small things it can to soften the situation. They're offering the model.
It's Tom who's failed to understand the story he's retailing, the moral of which is that time is on the side of those who love peace.