Two of the world’s most dangerously flamboyant showmen are planning to meet some time before the end of May. If the meeting does take place, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will pirouette on a diplomatic catwalk in a calculated game of international one-upmanship. Since China has welcomed the move to restore Asia’s political equilibrium and remove a threat to global peace, one expects it also to persuade Xi Jinping, now crowned emperor for life, not to rock regional stability with adventurist claims.
The West sees the Korean crisis, a lingering relic of the Cold War, as a clash between good and evil. North Korea’s tubby little Kim, Mr Trump’s derisive “Little Rocket Man”, is a natural target of fun, mocked by the Western media for his physique, hairdo, strutting walk and bombastic pronouncements. Ridicule is a way of demolishing an adversary. If North Korea is mocked into oblivion, then South Korea must be the triumphant repository of all virtue. Sadly, no one who has read James Cameron’s Point of Departure can accept that simplistic division. Cameron was a distinguished British journalist who was responsible in a way for my own entry into the profession. As is well-known, his reporting of the Korean War resulted in an epic fallout with the owner of the The Picture Post, the magazine which sent him. Not only did the latter refuse to print Cameron’s blisteringly honest account of atrocities that the South Koreans carried out on political prisoners under United Nations protection, but he also sacked his editor who supported Cameron.
South Korea was — and is — the United States’ sacred cow. Long before Mr Trump began trading schoolboy insults with Mr Kim, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama relentlessly demonised the North as a rogue state run by a dynasty of brutal tyrants determined to destroy Western civilisation. They cited this presumed menace to justify the US garrison of some 35,000 troops in South Korea 65 years after the Korean War ended and more than a quarter-century since the end of the Cold War. This is in addition to the “permanent aircraft-carrier” of Guam, naval bases and seaborne troops dotted all over the Indo-Pacific region, and approximately 50,000 military personnel in Japan with 40,000 dependents, and another 5,500 civilian employees of the US defence department.
North Korea is also the obvious and only target of the annual joint military exercises between the US and South Korea. Jim Mattis, Mr Trump’s defence secretary, says: “The only way to ‘locate and destroy — with complete certainty — all components of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programmes’ is through a ground invasion.” No wonder the North views the Washington-Seoul axis with profound suspicion. The US justified its earlier refusal to take up Mr Kim’s offer to negotiate by saying there could be no trust until North Korea first gave up its nukes. Mr Kim responded by pointing to Libya’s ill-fated Muammar el-Gaddafi who was attacked after he had stopped building the bomb. Mr Kim might also have mentioned the late Saddam Hussein, and retorted: “Even if I do give up my nuclear ambitions, you will manufacture false evidence to condemn me, flaunting it at the United Nations as Colin Powell did, to justify an invasion!”
Not that North Koreans are lily white innocents. I remember the stir in Colombo during the 1976 Nonaligned Nations’ Conference, which I was covering for The Observer in London, as unofficial reports circulated of North Korean soldiers axing to death two US Army officers engaged in a routine operation to cut down trees and clear a portion of the demilitarised zone at Panmunjom. (Panmunjom was where the North’s representatives at the postwar peace talks dragged out higher and higher stools so that they did not lose face by being dwarfed by the South Koreans and Americans, recalling the King’s “Your head is higher than mine!” in Anna and the King of Siam.) Kim Jong-il, son of North Korea’s Kim Il-sung, who was attending the conference, presented the incident as an example of American aggression. His version was accepted and the conference adopted a resolution calling on the US to withdraw from South Korea.
Typically, the Americans have already started to gloat over the proposed talks as a tremendous victory. “The North Koreans are coming to the table despite the US making zero concessions,” crowed US vice-president Mike Pence. “Our policy remains the same: all sanctions remain in place and the maximum pressure campaign will continue until North Korea takes concrete, permanent and verifiable steps to end their nuclear programme.” What was not predictable and has always intrigued me is why several American soldiers defected to North Korea after the war. A South Korean’s defection might have been explicable in personal and historical terms even though those who have visited the country know that Seoul is as modern and glitzy as Tokyo or Singapore.
But what makes a white American give up everything that millions of Indians would die for? Only one, Charles Jenkins, a sergeant, left North Korea to be court-martialled, demoted to private and discharged dishonourably with a 30-day jail sentence after pleading guilty to desertion and aiding the enemy, but only because he wanted to live in Japan with his Japanese wife. A documentary film, Crossing the Line, showed the last of them, James Dresnok, who died last year, saying he would not leave North Korea “if you put a billion damn dollars of gold on the table”. It probably wouldn’t occur to Mr Trump to wonder why. But that is no reason for not hoping that the talks do take place, and that a Washington-Pyongyang detente reduces tension in the entire region and persuades China to be less assertive in the South China Sea and elsewhere.