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Thomas L. Friedman: Solving the Korea crisis by teaching a horse to sing

A South Korean protester sits next to a poster with an illustration of President Donald Trump to oppose a plan to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul Monday, June 5, 2017.
A South Korean protester sits next to a poster with an illustration of President Donald Trump to oppose a plan to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul Monday, June 5, 2017. AP

Some stories have to be experienced to fully grasp — the Korea crisis is one of them. I arrived in Seoul on the evening of May 28. As I was dressing for breakfast the next morning, I was jarred by a news alert ringing on my phone: North Korea had just fired a short-range ballistic missile that had landed in the sea off its east coast.

I waited for the sirens to tell us to go to the hotel shelter. But there were no sirens. Nothing. The breakfast buffet was packed. The mood was: Another North Korean missile test? Oh, pay no attention to our crazy cousins. Could you pass the Kimchi, please?

A few hours after the missile test, two U.S. B-1B Lancer strategic bombers out of Guam flew right up to the North’s border on what North Korea called “a nuclear bomb dropping drill.” No matter. The South Korean stock market didn’t flinch.

In fact, one of the most popular housing markets for young Koreans today is Musan, located just south of the DMZ, the demilitarized zone separating the South from the North. It’s an easy commute to Seoul, and young people have gamed out that if the North launched rockets or artillery shells, they would likely go over their heads because they are so close to the border! Human beings! God love ‘em. Their ability to adapt never ceases to amaze me.

I interviewed a group of South Korean college students at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, and here’s what some said: “The fear has been diluted — as time goes by you just get used to it.”

What China and South Korea fear most is North Korea either blowing itself up — economically collapsing under the weight of sanctions — or being blown up by America.

The U.S. — by contrast — now fears North Korea blowing us up, or at least Los Angeles. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Washington fears North Korea more than ever, while China and South Korea fear a unilateral U.S. strike on North Korea more than ever.

Or, as Rob Litwak, the Wilson Center Korea arms control expert, described it: Seoul’s fear that Donald Trump could draw it into a catastrophic conflict on the Korean Peninsula “brings to mind Charles de Gaulle’s admonition during the Cuban missile crisis that being a U.S. ally ran the risk of ‘annihilation without representation.’”

North Korea gets 95 percent of its oil from China. Beijing could shut down the North’s economy overnight by shutting off that oil. But it hasn’t. It has suspended purchases of North Korean coal, hurting Pyongyang financially, but not enough to stop missile testing. For now, it appears that China will do just enough to keep Trump at bay — by keeping North Korea from putting the last screws on a nuclear missile that can hit the U.S. — but never enough to collapse the regime or definitively end its nuclear program.

What about diplomacy? For now, North Korea shows no willingness to trade its nuclear arsenal for guarantees that the U.S. will not pursue regime change, and Trump is not going to give such guarantees without total denuclearization.

In sum, China and South Korea don’t dare starve the North for fear it could collapse. They don’t dare shoot it for fear it could shoot back. They and the Americans don’t dare negotiate with Kim for fear that they will end up blessing his nukes — and because they don’t trust him to keep any deal. And they don’t dare ignore him, because he keeps getting stronger.

So we all wait — for something.

Indeed, the whole situation reminds me of the medieval fable of the criminal hauled before the king to plead for his life and successfully does so by promising that if the king spared his life for a year he could teach the king’s favorite horse to sing.

When the criminal got back to his cell, his cellmate scoffed at him: You could never teach the king’s horse to sing if you had a lifetime. And the man said: “No matter. I have a year now that I didn’t have before. And a lot of things can happen in a year. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die. And, who knows? Maybe the horse will sing.”

And that is our North Korea policy. Waiting for something to solve this insoluble problem. Waiting for a horse to sing.

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