New Year’s traditions differ across the Pacific. Americans break out bottles of champagne and wake up with headaches and fuzzy memories. Koreans try to maintain sobriety in order to bow to family elders on Jan. 1 and receive blessings for the peace, prosperity, and health of their entire clan. Such cultural differences, as superficial as they might seem, might offer a lesson in foreign policy.
Every fall, when the leaves begin turning yellow and brown, I think of my late grandmother. Born in 1913 in what is now South Korea, she spent some of her early life in what is today North Korea. In both parts of the then-undivided peninsula, my grandmother lived according to the rhythm of the changing seasons; in her later years, she loved recalling the harvests of her youth, when Korea’s fields were bursting with life-sustaining golden grain. For me, her granddaughter, fall remains a time to assess what I have harvested in my life, and to examine the fruits the world has borne – or failed to bear. This year I’ve concluded that, while North Korea has reaped a bumper crop of political gains since last fall, the United States has come up empty.
It’s been a roller coaster ride for anyone following plans for a June 12 summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. The actors were contradictory, the stage sets numerous and the messages chaotic. Within days of Trump’s May 24 cancellation of the Singapore meeting – and then the withdrawal of his withdrawal – President Moon Jae-in of South Korea met with the U.S. president in Washington and with the North Korean leader on the northern side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) to help keep the summit alive. Meanwhile, U.S. officials flew to the DMZ and Singapore and a top North Korean official came to New York to plan (again) for the encounter.
The Trump administration no doubt hopes that the North Koreans will shake with fear and come to the negotiating table with full transparency and obedience to Washington’s will now that the United States has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal. But the White House is confusing Iran with North Korea (DPRK) and ignoring key geopolitical differences between the two countries and regions.