When I first went to South Korea in 1988 before the Seoul Olympics, Business Week’s super-stringer Laxmi Nakarmi organized my schedule of appointments. I was going to see people at the large chaebol, or conglomerates, who were about to launch an amazing economic and technological blitz into the world. I was going to see government officials who were essentially pro-American. This was going to be the formula that launched South Korea.
But Laxmi also insisted that I go to universities to interview students and to Kwangju, a southern city where the military government had once massacred protesters. I discovered that there was a very deep divide in South Korean society. People on this side of the divide believed that they could march to the DMZ to reunite South Korea with the North, a wild pie-in-the-sky idea, but one which they believed. They hated the leaders of the chaebol because their big businesses crushed their little businesses. They blamed the United States for the division of their peninsula at the end of the Korean War and they believed that the American military shared part of the blame for the Kwangju massacre. Surely, the Americans must have known about it. They could have stopped it. I don’t know if that was true, but that’s what these people believed.
I kept visiting South Korea over the years and spent much time there in 2010. Laxmi asked me, “Do you remember those crazy left-wing people you interviewed in 1988?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, they’re in charge now,” he informed me.
President Trump’s bluster toward the North and intensified crackdown on its economic lifelines has caused North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to ask for a dialogue with his southern counterpart, Prime Minister Moon. Moon, a liberal, is skeptical about the American role on the Korean peninsula and wants deeply to score a breakthrough in relations with the North. Trump’s representatives are saying they don’t mind the fact that the North and South are sitting down to talk because nothing will change the South’s position, right?
Maybe wrong. If the North offers any significant reduction of tensions, the South is likely to embrace that and offer concessions of its own, such as re-opening a joint economic zone in Kaesong or offering food aid or some such. The two sides might reach agreement on the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics, which are to start shortly in South Korea. That would have huge symbolism.
Any such moves would completely subvert the Trump position that there is nothing to talk about until the North renounces its nuclear program. Trump will have succeed in pushing the North and South into something approaching a rapprochement. It won’t be full-scale peace or reunification, but they could reach some sort of accommodation. In effect, both Koreas would be thumbing their noses at a Trump who thinks he can manage complex geopolitical relations by throwing down taunts on Twitter.