George Will: Korean Peninsula a dangerous neighborhood |
George F. Will, Columnist

George Will: Korean Peninsula a dangerous neighborhood

George Will
President Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone June 30.

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. His brother-in-law died when North Koreans killed 17 South Korean officials in a 1983 attempt to assassinate South Korea’s president during a visit to Burma.

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, where the anniversary of Japan’s 1945 surrender is a national holiday, 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. — many more years ago than the Japanese occupation lasted South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, whose party is facing a general election in 2020, 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 often middle-aged and some of them protest the statue of MacArthur in Incheon and 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 (there is precedent), 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, who are hyperbole-prone, 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.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.