At the height of the excitement last week over the real possibility of transformation on the Korean peninsula, a colleague of mine – a man well-informed but inflamed with dislike for Donald Trump – murmured to me, almost in anguish:
“It’s a great thing! But if it had only been some other president!”
Usually, in these unpleasant days, I refuse to get into these arguments unless there is something positive to learn from them, but for some reason this time I chose to admonish him: “That’s ridiculous. Haven’t you grown up enough to know that good things can come from bad people and bad things from good ones?”
He slunk off this time, unhappily so, and I was unhappily left with my feeling that we in the press need to be more deeply invested in our historical role as professionals who are fair, who are balanced and who are not, at least publicly, emotionally involved in our reporting. But first, let’s look at this current Korean drama:
I have been to South Korea. I’ve stood twice at the DMZ, looked at the hatred in the North Korean soldiers’ faces and grown cold inside. I’ve learned how the North’s first Communist ruler, Kim Il Sung, had been a guerrilla fighting Japanese invaders, but (seemingly little known) was also originally a Protestant.
My friend Josette Sheeran, president of the Asia Society, actually interviewed this Kim and found him a “great storyteller ... he told us stories all the time.” That amazed me. From their harsh pictures, I wasn’t sure North Koreans could talk, much less tell stories.
I learned how the U.S. first garbled the “Korean peninsula problem” after the successes of World War II. First, Secretary of State Dean Acheson forgot to include the Koreas in the strategic Asian defensive perimeter in 1950, leading the Russians to believe we would not defend the peninsula. So Kim Il Sung, backed by the Russians, invaded the South and, in the end, 20 percent of the Korean population died in the war.
And I learned that, despite early American mistakes, like simply drawing a line across the middle of the peninsula on the 38th parallel (which made no geopolitical sense) after the war “ended” in a draw, the U.S. backed South Korean development to such an extent that it has not only become one of the greatest economic success stories of the modern age, but it has passed, like chapters in a book on how to progress, from military authoritarianism backed by the “chaebol” industrial giants to workable democratic development. It should also be noted that modern South Korea is heavily Christian and heavily Protestant.
But in all these many years since 1953, there has been no peace treaty between North and South, although they are the very same Korean people. The limited armistice agreement was not even signed by the South Korean government, but imposed by the United Nations. Leaders of the two Koreas met in 2000 and 2007, and agreements addressing nuclear weapons and the economy were made – but never carried out by the North.
Now let’s look at President Trump’s role in this drama:
One does not have to admire the president’s language, nor his behavior with women, nor his rape of the environment to see that tough language against the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, might have had a sobering effect. Barack Obama may well have presented too weak a stage for them to walk across, waving their nuclear threats against America before the world audience.
Let us ourselves walk cautiously across that stage, but let us also give the president credit where it’s due. The keys, as I read the situation, are to be found in these areas:
– Whether North and South can truly recognize each other, thus ending the North’s fiction that it comprises the entire peninsula.
– Whether the North can find some other means to organize itself, outside of endless threats.
– Whether the North can truly be expected to roll back its nuclear program against the U.S.
The Koreas are important to us, even outside the nuclear question. It was the Korean War that led to the Vietnam War, that set the pattern for that conflagration, and that could have, had our leaders been wiser, warned us against involvement in Indochina. They are important to President Trump, for the world will better remember how he handles this complicated and important situation than it will remember what he has said about it.
And they are important to those of us in journalism, too, for too many of us are reveling in a dislike, sometimes bordering on hatred, of Trump. Some of us don’t seem to realize that those attitudes are antithetical to the best traditions of our work, and they also can be taken as aimed against the people who feel Trump represents them. “Credit where credit’s due,” my mother always said (and she was always right).
The Korean story is a good place for all of us to start being more fair, more honest and less emotional – and, like our mothers, more right.
Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.