[Viewpoint] Stop me if you’ve heard this before

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[Viewpoint] Stop me if you’ve heard this before

“North Korea to Return to Negotiating Table.”

This headline cropped up, once again, the other day on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. It also appeared in the American magazine Foreign Policy, which noted that, as in the movie “Groundhog Day,” certain headlines recur again and again, as if on a loop feed.

You know them well now: “Fidel Castro is Dying.” “Momentum on Doha Round” (Come again? Something about world trade). “Israel and Palestinians Reach Peace Deal.”

You’ve seen these plenty of times by now, and you will see them over and over again. The one about Castro will eventually come true, that’s a certainty. The others linger because we want them to come true. Pretty please?

Who, after all, is harmed by these loop-feed headlines? Not headline writers, for sure. I was one for many years, and I can tell you that it was quite a comfort to have the old familiar stories come around again, with headlines ready-made for plugging in.

“Pakistan Finally Getting Tough with Taliban.” “Dollar to Be Replaced as Reserve Currency.” “New Russian President Proposing Liberal Reforms.”

The thing about these stories is that although they seem to be just about to happen, and we all want them to happen, they never quite actually happen. So we will see them in the newspaper again next month, or next year.

“North Korea to Return to Negotiating Table.”

It provides prestigious employment for diplomats and think-tank minds. If I’d had the foresight to become a North Korea expert 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, I might never have worried about putting food on the table and tuition money for my children and grandchildren.

A North Korea expert’s work, to be sure, is frustrating and maddening. But it is an intellectual challenge and a condign remedy for hubris.

Think, for example, of a hypothetical South Korean diplomat who negotiated first secret and then open agreements with North Korea from the Park Chung Hee administration in the 1970s to the culminating 1991 declaration for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, or perhaps even up to the North-South summit of 2000 and its declaration of agreement “to solve the question of the country’s reunification independently by the concerted efforts of the Korean nation responsible for it.”

At the time, you were engorged with pride. Now retired many years later, you hear a small, piping voice pridefully explain to a cousin: “Our grandpa made peace with North Korea!” Will you admit to the child that your life was lived in vain?

And yet here is that loop-feed headline again: “North Korea to Return to Negotiating Table.”

Well, thank God, of course. At least we are talking, and as Winston Churchill said, “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” Pyongyang is counting on our reflex reaction, because it is in fact better to talk than to fight if those are truly the only alternatives.

But this time it may be different.

Pyongyang has said that it “regretted” the incident in which it opened a dam and subsequently drowned a half-dozen South Koreans, though it stopped short of an apology. Doesn’t that show a conciliatory attitude?

The diplomats and experts and headline writers will make out all right in this next cycle of “breakthrough, breakdown.” The only groups who will lose in the charade are North Koreans and South Koreans. People, I mean, not officials.

As for the North Korean people, it hardly needs arguing that the longer Kim Jong-il is able to prolong his canny, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t negotiating game, the longer their misery will endure.

But even in the rich and happy South, the Korean standoff undermines personal and intellectual integrity. When I taught in Seoul at a graduate school of international studies, I was surprised at how many of my Korean students preferred to displace themselves from the Korean problem.

The superpowers, America and Russia, caused the problem in 1945 by drawing a line on a map, they argued. Only the superpowers can undo the outcome.

These, I repeat, were university graduate students majoring in international studies. Did they really believe that, ever since the Cold War, U.S. presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and the younger Bush actually had the power to deal with North Korea and chose not to exercise it?

Of course, they did not believe that. They were confessing their own powerlessness to figure out the problem, and dumping the responsibility elsewhere - a very human reaction.

Here is an even more human reaction: “Everyone wants to live for a beautiful cause. They want to be good guys. All of us are like that. I want to, too. But this is not right. Where’s the end of this work? Why do you have to pour the money I’ve worked so hard for where it doesn’t leave any trace?”

The speaker is Su-hye, the protagonist of a short story called “The Bison” by Jung Mi Kyung. The story is part of a collection entitled “About My Son’s Girlfriend,” coming out in English next year.

Su-hye is a sculptor married to a humanitarian who conducts relief efforts in the North. Her art sells well, and her husband uses her income to alleviate the miseries of the North. But this means she has to keep generating salable, commercial art instead of simply following her artistic vision.

And the miseries are never alleviated.

“His work seemed no better than pouring water into a broken jar,” Su-hye laments. “After X-ray machines were sent upon request, they complained that the machines remained idle because there was no film, and after the film was delivered, they demanded generators, saying that a shortage of electricity prevented the machines from being used. When machines broke down, the North Koreans insisted that they be repaired.

“Everything was in this vein. TB is a consumptive disease. Drugs alone couldn’t cure it. Food was essential. Appeal after appeal tumbled out.”

Thus North Korea becomes the aggrieved mendicant; South Korea the resentful benefactor. It is a familiar story, but rarely is the dynamic played out on such a scale as on the Korean Peninsula.

One precedent is Germany. This month the world is remarking the 20th anniversary of the falling of the Berlin Wall. That event signaled the end of the Cold War and led to German unification - but also to a similar mendicant-benefactor dynamic that endures in Germany to this day.

“North Korea to Return to Negotiating Table.” That’s good news, isn’t it? Tell it to Su-hye, and to any North Korean you may happen to know.


*The thing with some stories, particularly those related to North Korea negotiations, is that although they seem to be just about to happen, and we all want them to happen, they never quite actually happen.

by Harold Piper
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