George Will: Korean Peninsula a dangerous neighborhood
SEOUL, South Korea
In 1950, when Han Sung-joo was 10, shrapnel from an artillery shell lodged in his hip. This happened as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s troops, fresh from the bold Incheon landing, were retaking this city — it would be lost and retaken again — after North Korea’s June invasion. The shell fragment was still there when Han served as his nation’s minister of foreign affairs (1993-94) and as ambassador to the United States (2003-05). He lives today with this metallic reminder of the fact that his nation lives in a dangerous neighborhood.
North Korea’s opaque regime possesses nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and conventional artillery and rockets that could devastate large portions of this metropolitan area of 25 million without any infantry or armor crossing the 38th parallel. But North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un is less unpopular among South Koreans than is Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Japan’s 35-year colonization of the Korean Peninsula ended with World War II. Seventy-four years later, South Korea is jeopardizing its and Northeast Asia’s security in order to pursue war-era grievances concerning Japan’s exploitation of forced labor. Japan says this issue, including expressions of remorse and restitution, was settled in 1965. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has agitated this dispute, and a Korean court recently reopened it. Many Koreans say Japan’s reparations have been insufficient and its apologies insincere.
South Korean polls reveal troubling age differences and a small middle ground. Young people are much less sanguine about their northern neighbor than Moon is. South Koreans in their 20s are the most hostile to warmer relations, or unification, with North Korea. Progressives are generally skeptical about U.S. policies and motives.
What Winston Churchill said of the Balkans — that they produce more history than they can consume — has been true of this peninsula for more than a century. Control of it was among the contested issues behind the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95); and the Russo- Japanese War (1904-1905), which made Russia ripe for the 1917 Russian Revolution; and of course the Korean War.
Four U.S. presidents prior to the current one toiled to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. This continued until — if you believe the current one — he and Kim spent a few hours together in Singapore, “fell in love,” and their conjugal relations produced this presidential tweet: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” If, however, today’s president is mistaken, so has been the durable belief that cajoling lubricated by bribery (food, energy, assistance building light-water reactors) would deflect North Korea from its decades-long nuclear project. The failure is writ large in the fact that North Korea has placed in its constitution the ambiguous description of itself as a “nuclear power.”
Han Sung-joo is so given to softly spoken understatements that, he says, he hardly seems Korean: He says that his countrymen are “emotion-prone.” So, attention must be paid when he says his country is more than “polarized,” it is afflicted with “cleavages.” Americans have a seemingly endless series of high-decibel shouting matches over this or that supposedly “existential” matter. South Koreans actually live with such a threat, one that Moon minimizes, and that events might be maximizing.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and can be reached via email.