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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
CNN, quoting South Korean official sources, has reported that President Trump is considering a visit to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) during his upcoming visit to Seoul. This would bring Donald Trump to the very spot that former President Clinton once referred to as “the scariest place on earth.”
In the Cold War era of Ronald Reagan and even beyond, a trip to the DMZ became de rigueur for American presidents to demonstrate solidarity with U.S. Forces Korea and to indicate firm support for the alliance with South Korea.
According to Stars and Stripes, U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have all visited the DMZ, making a Trump visit all but mandatory.
President Trump was scheduled to visit the DMZ in November 2017 but gave up when his Marine One helicopter was grounded due to bad weather.
It should be noted for the record that the monsoon in the summer of 1993 did not stop Bill Clinton from getting to the DMZ – when helicopters were grounded because of the rain the President ordered a convoy of motor vehicles to make the thirty-mile trek northward.
It ended in a tense encounter with North Korean soldiers armed with Kalashnikov AK-47 rifles staring across the Bridge of No Return at the American President, according to the memoirs of former Secret Service agent Dan Emmett in his book “Within Arm’s Length: A Secret Service Agent’s Definitive Inside Account of Protecting the President.”
Nothing anywhere close to that is likely to happen with the bromance that has developed between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. Trump told a political rally in West Virginia in September 2018 that he and Kim “fell in love” during their Singapore summit earlier that year. Kim sent this month what Donald Trump referred to as “a beautiful letter,” reportedly wishing him “happy birthday,” on the one year anniversary of that summit meeting.
KCNA, the official North Korean news agency, reported on June 23 that Kim had received a “personal letter” in return from Donald Trump. Kim Jong Un said that he would “seriously contemplate the interesting content” and appreciated the “extraordinary courage of President Trump,” KCNA added.
Thus, the bromance appears rekindled, despite continued expressions of distrust of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions by such key Trump administration officials as Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton.
The latest letter exchange of the pen pals even led a Blue House official in Seoul, according to CNN, to issue an extraordinary denial that that “there are no plans for Trump to hold a trilateral meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during his visit to the Korean Peninsula” – which would presumably take place in the DMZ.
After all, it was the DMZ that was used as the venue for the first summit meeting of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un in April of last year.
Trump could go down in history if he were to proceed to the DMZ and utter words reminiscent to those of Kennedy or Reagan
Yet, despite its recent use as a diplomatic setting, the DMZ remains likely the most fortified piece of real estate in the world, with the South Korean capital Seoul a mere thirty miles away from North Korean chemical weapon-armed mortars.
The United States fought for the exclusion of the DMZ from global de-mining efforts in 2014. Kim Jong Un, according to an April 2017 article, has planted one million mines on his side of the DMZ as a result of his fears of a northward U.S. invasion.
Despite joint South-North DMZ demining efforts which began in the fall of 2018, two South Korean soldiers were severely injured by North Korean landmines in the DMZ as recently as 2015, with one of them losing both of his legs. Not a pleasant place to hold a summertime summit, yet summitry has had some strange bedfellows.
Past presidential visits to another stark symbol of political oppression and human rights abuses have drawn a decidedly different response than one of accommodation to a dictator.
This month marked the 32nd anniversary of what remains one of the most famous speeches of the Reagan presidency. Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate, in front of the infamous Berlin Wall, where many had been injured or died – just like the two South Korean soldiers in 2015 or U.S. Army Captain Bonifas and Lieutenant Barrett in the infamous DMZ “axe murder” incident in 1976.
There he uttered the words that will echo through the ages: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And, miraculously, demonstrating perhaps the force of words and a clear vision, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in a little over two years.
Even decades later, tourists to Berlin – I was there a few years ago – are taken by their German guides to the Brandenburg Gate where Reagan stood in the square in front of Berlin’s City Hall, also where another American President, John Kennedy, issued his own words in 1963: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” JFK then eloquently expressed that he stood with the people of West Berlin surrounded by the newly constructed wall.
Like bookends in the history of the Berlin Wall, shortly after its construction and shortly before its destruction, two U.S. Presidents of different political parties had expressed their opposition to tyranny and their solidarity with the oppressed. Berliners still remember.
They tell their American visitors that the words of JFK and Ronald Reagan made all the difference in giving hope to people in East Germany and other Soviet satellite states beyond the wall who yearned for a breath of freedom. Our guide told us that those words were “immeasurable” in their impact.
But, no matter how “lovable” Kim Jong Un may seem, evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. A recent report of “323 public execution sites” in North Korea, recorded by satellite imagery, was released by the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group. A UN food security assessment issued in May indicates that “more than 10 million North Koreans are suffering ‘severe food shortages’ after the worst harvest in a decade.”
A steady stream of reports from refugee and other sources indicate that the horrors of the “kwalliso” concentration camp system of an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners continue unabated, implementing the most brutal human rights violations.
Then there was the brutal murder by a chemical weapon two years ago of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam, with its echo of the first murder recorded in human history – the Biblical tale of Cain killing his brother Abel. Is a person who would do these things someone whose word can be trusted in reaching any negotiated settlement?
It will not be “Mr. Kim, tear down this barbed wire!” Instead, it may be: “Mr. Kim, I will help you build a wall (to keep your people locked up)”
Donald Trump could go down in history if he were to proceed to the DMZ and utter words reminiscent to those of Kennedy or Reagan: “Mr. Kim, tear down this barbed wire!” It would be a clear message of solidarity to the captive people of North Korea and beyond.
However, this is not likely to happen. Rather one can expect words, if any are uttered, which further coddle his “friend,” the tyrannical Kim Jong Un.
These words would likely be issued within earshot of the very spot where Captain Bonifas and Lieutenant Barrett were slain with axes on orders from Kim’s grandfather four decades ago.
They would be issued in the vicinity of Camp Bonifas itself, named to honor the memory of the dead American military officer. They would be issued near the Bridge of No Return where North Korean soldiers once menacingly pointed rifles in the general direction of President Trump’s predecessor, former President Clinton.
These words would then echo across the seas to the Ohio home of the parents of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier. These are the same parents who were hailed by President Trump in his State of the Union address just last year as “powerful witnesses” to North Korea’s horrors.
The Republican Party that helped send Ronald Reagan to Berlin with an unequivocal message of support for national security and freedom is no more. It will not be “Mr. Kim, tear down this barbed wire!” Instead, it may be: “Mr. Kim, I will help you build a wall (to keep your people locked up).”
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour