The diplomatic courtship of South Korea’s president.Sep 29, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 03 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
America’s “pivot” to Asia is rapidly going nowhere, but diplomatic challenges in the most economically vibrant region of the world still cry out for attention. These include the brash assertiveness of a rising China, the emergence of an erratic, nuclear-armed young North Korean leader, and the embrace of neo-nationalism in an aging and insecure Japan. One nation stands out as a source of balance—South Korea, personified by its astute and pragmatic president, the first woman to hold the job.
The diplomatic courtship of Park Geun-hye drew worldwide attention in March when President Obama arranged a three-way meeting with her and Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, during a summit at The Hague. One could almost hear a chorus singing “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” in the background as the Western press gushed over the “breakthrough meeting.”
Most Koreans knew better. They were aware that Park Geun-hye normally would not be caught anywhere near the nationalistic Japanese leader, who had just three months before visited Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni war shrine. The stilted meeting required the American president to assume the Yente role at the behest of a worried State Department. In an official photo of the event, a barely smiling Park stares straight ahead, while a rather befuddled looking Abe watches as Obama does most of the talking.
In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye’s intelligent, strong-willed eldest daughter resists her father’s promotion of the wealthy but boorish butcher in favor of a more dashing suitor. Park Geun-hye also apparently has a mind of her own, despite pressure from the elders of Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon. The Washington gurus reportedly told Seoul’s diplomats that South Korea is “not a team player” in the alliance for not embracing Abe. They seemed to imply, like Tevye, that she should defer to “The Papa!” i.e., Uncle Sam.
But The Papa in Washington could do little when a more dashing suitor came courting in Seoul in July. There was nervousness in Washington as Chinese president Xi Jinping received the red carpet treatment from America’s South Korean ally. The sting is potentially even greater; Korean friends have said that any announced South Korean trip by Japan’s Abe would see the streets of Seoul flooded with so many protesters that the visit would have to be canceled (rather like President Eisenhower’s aborted visit to Tokyo in 1960 in the midst of contentious security treaty negotiations being handled by Prime Minister Abe’s own grandfather). Korean government officials, for the record, have asserted that bilateral relations with Tokyo are not as strained as claimed on the Seoul street and that, given the right circumstances, Abe would be welcomed.
Still, Washington should be concerned given President Park’s reported affection for Chinese culture and her noted fluency in Mandarin Chinese. And, as with any earnest suitor, Xi brought gifts guaranteed to dazzle. He had already approved earlier in the year the opening of a memorial hall in northeast China dedicated to the Korean independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun, who assassinated Japanese statesman Ito Hirobumi at Harbin train station in 1909. Xi has further plans for memorial sites in China dedicated to the Comfort Women, a key concern of the South Korean public, and to the Korean Provisional Government-in-exile, which was established in China during the period of Japanese colonial rule over Korea.
And soon after his Seoul visit, Xi Jinping, in a direct snub to his disrespectful and impulsive North Korean ally, allegedly allowed a group of North Korean refugees caught on China’s southern border, including a child, to be turned over to South Korean diplomats. They reportedly gained safe passage to Seoul rather than being sent back to the North Korean gulag. If true, this represents a clear triumph for Park Geun-hye’s quiet diplomacy on the refugee issue. Xi also holds the key to the ultimate prize for Seoul—Chinese acquiescence in a unified Korean peninsula one day under Seoul’s administration. While still a pipe dream, this possibility remains the holy grail of emerging Sino-South Korean friendly relations.
So will a bilateral Park-Abe summit ever take place? If Park Geun-hye were a descendant of independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun, she could be on a flight to Tokyo tomorrow, just as Richard Nixon, with his impeccable anti-Communist credentials, was the only American president who could go to China. But the uncomfortable fact is that President Park’s father, former president Park Chung-hee, was a graduate of the Imperial Japanese Army Academy and served as a lieutenant with Japan’s Kwantung Army in Manchuria—the same region where Prime Minister Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, headed industrial development and stood accused of exploiting Chinese slave labor.
Jul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
North Korea’s Kim dynasty is in decay—literally. According to a report in the defector publication Daily NK, the founding dictator Kim Il-sung’s embalmed corpse, which has been on public display for some 20 years, is starting to show its age. “Kim’s skin appears to be deteriorating and his head and body are shrinking,” the newspaper reports. “Party cadres, who generally visit [the mausoleum] more often than anyone else . . . say [Kim is] ‘losing water like a drying pollock.’ ”
Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
That the North Korean regime has taken another American tourist hostage—this time it’s one Jeffrey Edward Fowle of Miamisburg, Ohio, who was seized in May after a Bible was reportedly discovered in his hotel room—is hardly surprising. North Korea is ferociously repressive, and, as Paul Marshall notes elsewhere in this issue, it targets Christians. What is odd is that the United States continues to allow Americans to travel to North Korea without any restrictions.
1:21 PM, Jun 4, 2014 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
A U.S. Army soldier goes missing at night from a remote post on the edge of enemy territory. Depressed and anxious, he has expressed doubts about the U.S. mission and disillusionment with the war. He allegedly leaves behind a note recording these doubts. There are some reports that he consumes alcohol before he disappears. He crosses enemy lines and is detained by hostile forces who subsequently publicly announce his conversion to their anti-American cause.
1:13 PM, May 9, 2014 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
In an age of hypersensitivity to sexism and homophobia, why does the North Korean regime escape censure? North Korean media specialize in a gutter rhetoric that, from any other source, would be met with immediate condemnation. The world, however, seems so accustomed to hearing astonishingly repellent remarks from the North Korean propagandists that now anything goes.
7:38 AM, Feb 27, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
The South Koreans are reporting that North Korea fired off four short-range missiles today. "South Korea says North Korea has fired four suspected short-range missiles into its eastern waters," reports the Associated Press.
If Tehran breaks its promises, we’re unlikely to know. Feb 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 21 • By GABRIEL SCHOENFELD
President Obama is rushing to implement the six-month interim agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran that went into effect last week. Together with five other world powers, he is now working to negotiate a long-term agreement aimed at keeping Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. He regards his opening to Iran as a signature achievement of his presidency and has proudly declared that diplomacy opened a path to “a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”
8:16 AM, Jan 7, 2014 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s self-proclaimed “friend for life” Dennis Rodman announced January 4 that he had assembled the promised team of former NBA players to take to Pyongyang.
9:01 AM, Dec 20, 2013 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
Now that the hoopla has begun to die down over Kim Jong-un’s execution of his uncle—reportedly Mafia-style with machine guns—the Young General is anticipating his athletes shooting a few hoops under the expert tutoring of Dennis Rodman.
7:26 AM, Dec 17, 2013 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
Woody Allen once famously said "90 percent of life is just showing up." In the Kim family's North Korea showing up—or suddenly not—can be a true matter of life or death.
First successful nuclear test was more than four years ago.11:40 AM, Dec 15, 2013 • By MICHAEL WARREN
Secretary of State John Kerry told ABC News in an interview that North Korea "potentially" having a nuclear weapon would be "even more unacceptable." North Korea first tested its nuclear weapons capabilities in 2006 and had a more successful test in 2009. The country's most recent nuclear test was earlier this year.
ABC News journalist Martha Raddatz asked Kerry, who was in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, about the execution of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un's uncle.
10:48 AM, Dec 13, 2013 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
Even after 65 years of hideous barbarity, the murderousness of the Kim regime still holds the capacity to shock. Korea-watchers are baffled at the news that Kim Jong-un had his uncle and former mentor, Jang Song-thaek, summarily executed for “treason” this week. (For analysis of the events leading to Jang’s purge and execution, see Dennis C. Halpin’s piece in this week’s magazine.)
Merrill Newman’s reminder: don’t go to North Korea.2:46 PM, Dec 2, 2013 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
In recent years, as its regime has been increasingly hemmed in by sanctions, North Korea has encouraged foreign tourists to visit the country. Unfortunately, it’s been working—nearly 10,000 Westerners now travel to the North Korea each year. One of them, 85-year-old Merrill Newman of Palo Alto, California, has been detained there for the last several weeks.
Joins China Daily, Pravda, and KCNA.4:03 PM, Aug 30, 2013 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
When it comes to North Korea, it’s helpful to keep a simple rule of thumb in mind: don’t trust anybody who refers to the country as the “DPRK.” (That would be the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” the country’s official – and yes, bleakly ironic – name.) Calling North Korea the “DPRK” is not only woefully misleading – there’s nothing democratic, republican, or people-oriented about the brutal dictatorship – but it also lends legitimacy to the ruling regime.