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Lessons From Korea

This past Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of the armistice which ended the Korean War. The day passed quietly in South Korea, where I am spending some time–marked by a few fly-bys of South Korean F-16K jets and a low-key ceremony at the War Memorial in Seoul where President Park Geun-hye expressed her hope for lasting peace on the peninsula. It was a different story in Pyongyang where the Communist regime marked “Victory Day,” its self-serving label for the armistice, with a grandiose parade of military hardware including what were, in all probability, phony ICBMs and suitcase nukes adorned with ostentatious radioactive warning symbols. 

It’s hard to more accurately symbolize the divide between South and North–between, respectively, a peaceful, prosperous and democratic government and one that is militaristic, impoverished, and repressive. If the years since the Korean War and in particular the years since the demise of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy (1998-2008) should have us taught anything, it is that outreach from Seoul and Washington does nothing to melt the icy hostility of the North, which must preserve a continuing state of tensions to justify the despotic rule of the Kim dynasty. Providing subsidies or diplomatic recognition to North Korea in response to its threats and provocations only brings more of the same. Yet somehow the urge to placate the North proves irresistible. 

President Park is now offering the North a $7.3 million bribe–excuse me, humanitarian aid–to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which the North closed in April during a round of saber rattling. The industrial complex consists of South Korean owned-and-operated factories in North Korea, just north of the DMZ (from where it is visible), which employs more than 50,000 North Korean workers and generates at least $90 million in hard currency for the North. The whole thing is a giant boondoggle, run by the South as a sop to the North. Why Seoul is trying to reopen it is a mystery: if Pyongyang wants to close it and lose the benefits it derives from Kaesong, why is the South standing in the way and, in essence, demanding the right to continue subsidizing the North Korean regime?

This is to, put it mildly, counterproductive. The same might be said about Jimmy Carter’s umpteenth trip to North Korea, now being planned to free Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour operator and missionary who was arrested in the North and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor. This is part of a long-standing pattern with the North, which likes to lock up Westerners to entice high-profile figures such as Bill Richardson, Bill Clinton, or Jimmy Carter to visit. Those visits, in turn, are presented to the North Korean population as if these leading Americans are paying obeisance to the Kims–which in some respects they are, albeit unintentionally. If Carter succeeds in freeing Bae it will be a good deed, but also one that will ensure more such kidnappings in the future.

It’s well past time for South Korea and the rest of the West to stop kidding themselves about the North Korean regime. It is not going to moderate itself. The only way the situation will improve is if the North Korean regime peacefully collapses–and providing any support or outreach to the unrepentant Stalinists of the North in the meantime is counterproductive.


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