The Korean Peninsula has been divided into North and South since the end of World War II, when it was liberated from being a Japanese colony. The Soviet Union backed the half north of the 38th parallel, and the United States backed its southern cousin. In 1950, communist North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union and a new Red China, invaded South Korea in a forcible attempt to re-unify the peninsula. The United States led a UN mission to repel the invasion, and succeeded in saving South Korea. By 1953, the war had ground to a stalemate near the 38th parallel, and a cease-fire created the current Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea.
Though the shooting war ended some 65 years ago, the two Koreas never officially ended the conflict. North Korea, now a nuclear-armed provocateur, has bedeviled U.S. presidents for decades. Since Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, American leaders have tried, unsuccessfully, to thwart Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Now, however, there is a glimmer of genuine hope: North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un appears to be pursuing an end to the war in an unprecedented trip to South Korea. Having encountered tough talk from the new U.S. president and waning support from traditional ally China, is Kim really laying down his arms in hopes of a peace deal and, almost certainly, a helping of economic aid?
Unfortunately, North Korea is infamous for making peaceful overtures and then dashing them, usually after receiving some aid. Despite the amazing news about Kim Jong-un crossing the DMZ for a summit, most observers are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Could North Korea’s overtures simply be feelers to see if it can get South Korea and its allies to drop their guard? Is Kim simply fishing for aid, seeing what will be offered? Will he ever actually give up his precious nukes, which he and his father sought with no regard for its drain on scarce economic resources?
In the White House, Donald Trump has been given a tremendous political gift…if it doesn’t blow up in his face. By approving secret negotiations directly with North Korea early in the month, Trump is well-positioned to claim credit for any upcoming peace deal with Pyongyang. He can ably argue that Kim Jong-un saw the light after talking to the U.S. government. With little the GOP can accomplish in Congress before November’s midterm elections, given our current state of political gridlock, a foreign policy bonanza like a brokered peace deal between North and South Korea would be the president’s ace in the hole
However, Trump must work hard to prevent Kim from backing out, at least before November. If Kim publicly repudiates his recent peace overtures, it will signal that he fears Trump no more than he and his father, Kim Jong Il, feared presidents Clinton, Bush, or Obama. Democrats will point to Trump’s past tough talk on Twitter, where the new commander-in-chief famously insulted and belittled Kim Jong-un and North Korea. If there is anything that Trump cannot stand, it is looking weak and being mocked.
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