This is the first instalment from a new column, which you will definitely want to read regularly, where I’ll be asking the big questions about life, politics, and anything with the vaguest of ties to Asia. Sometimes it will be daily, other times it will be weekly. The goal is to keep you on your toes.
At this very moment, hanging inside the front door of my studio apartment, is the front-page of a Korean newspaper.
The entire page is a color photo of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, riding in a drop-top limousine through the streets of Pyongyang. They’re standing up and waving at bystanders like two aging rockstars in a Santa Claus parade.
To be honest, I didn’t hang it up because I love Moon or Kim, or their drop-top limo (I really do, though). It’s because the front door of my apartment has a window that lets light in at night. So Kim and Moon are helping me sleep.
But that picture of Moon and Kim riding ‘round town with the top down (is somebody listening to Jermaine Dupri down the hall?) also helps me sleep better in Seoul for another reason: I personally see that car ride as the next best thing to a peace treaty.
It’s kind of like the Grinch looming over a peaceful Whoville, only the Who’s in Seoul have better cellphones.
Life in South Korea is interesting. Myself and the Korean hosts who tolerate me are always aware that just up north, across an imaginary but well-guarded line, lives a man who dislikes us very much. It’s kind of like the Grinch looming over a peaceful Whoville, only the Who’s in Seoul have better cellphones.
Every now and then our Grinch, Chairman Kim, gives a colourful speech telling us how much he dislikes us. Sometimes he makes vague threats about turning our beloved capital into ashes. The world gets nervous. CNN starts buzzing. And yet life in Seoul goes on as usual.
But beneath that veil of calm, the people of South Korea are nervous. At least a little bit, even if they won’t admit it. Maybe not as much as the English teaching expats, but nervous nonetheless.
They’ve simply gotten used to it.
So every time someone walks across that imaginary but well-guarded line — first Kim, then Moon, and now Trump himself — South Koreans breathe a collective but well-hidden sigh of relief. They cheer at the TV footage that runs full-volume inside every kimchi jjigae joint. Not because they love Trump, or Kim, or imaginary lines. But because whenever someone steps over that line, it brings the peninsula a little further from destruction and a little closer to safety.
Maybe it’s my hippy tendencies beginning to resurface after a long sojourn in Asia, where things like peace, love, and … other stuff… aren’t as common as they are in Canada. I did major in English literature, after all. But I personally see all the elbow rubbing, photo-ops, and impromptu house calls as a good thing. I mean, isn’t this how every good relationship begins?
If Kim and Trump were a romance, I’d say they’re doing pretty well.
It started with a bit of teasing… and threats of war over Twitter and UN podiums. That’s a textbook sign of affection.
Their first date was in Singapore, nearly cancelled when Trump got cold feet, but revived by Moon, South Korea’s most gifted matchmaker.
Critics say Singapore failed to deliver concrete results, but what kind of first date were they hoping for? Things may have changed in 2018, but decency in the courtship phase is still fashionable in my books.
After that came the letters, an official declaration that they were now a diplomatic item.
They had their first fight in Hanoi when Trump, who is somehow even more dramatic than Kim, walked out after they couldn’t agree on how many nuclear missiles one side should give up, or how many economic sanctions the other should tear down.
But with Trump showing up at Kim’s doorstep last month, I’d say the make-up period is in full swing.
Trump can still muster up a bit of spontaneity, becoming not only the first US president to enter North Korea, but also the first to invite himself in via Twitter.
Trump might be better with spectacles than he is with deals, but he’s not the first of his kind. If you’re old enough to remember when Nixon and Kissinger warmed up to Beijing in 1972 after years of the cold-shoulder (I’m certainly not) then you’ll know what I mean. During Nixon’s 7-day tour of China, everything down to the restaurants and handshakes was planned ahead and choreographed for the media. At least Trump can still muster up a bit of spontaneity, becoming not only the first US president to enter North Korea, but the also first to invite himself in via Twitter.
You could accuse Trump of trading good policy for a good show, and you’d get no argument from me. But he seems to understand one thing better than the journalists, the North Korea experts, or even President Obama: how to string along a dictator.
You might bark at this, but personally I prefer my dictators flattered over fuming, especially when they live right next door. And so far Trump has done a good job of stating what he wants (denuclearization) while still building a diplomatic relationship. In some vague way, that counts as a success, even if it’s not quite a win.
Like all worthwhile relationships, good diplomacy is long-winded. We’re fishing for a commitment, not a summer-time fling. You can’t rush these things… if you could, we wouldn’t be looking at 20 years of failed attempts.
So I don’t know about you, but I am perfectly content with summits that produce more photos than deals, symbolic but unproductive border crossings, and drop-top limousine rides through Pyongyang. They help me sleep better at night, even as the hawks in Washington are stirring.
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