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Hither and Yon

As Korean crisis looms, a Kissingeresque 'Peace-is-at-hand' fix is the wrong answer

As Korean crisis looms, a Kissingeresque ‘Peace-is-at-hand’ fix is the wrong answer
Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
Comparisons between the Korean and Vietnam wars have always been misleading if not ridiculous, never more so than when Henry Kissinger, in a new documentary, “Last Days in Vietnam,” says that he and his boss, President Richard Nixon, believed the Vietnam War would end as had the Korean War.
That is, after Kissinger and North Vietnam negotiator Le Duc Tho signed the “Paris Peace” in January 1973, all sides would stick by the terms dictated by the truce. The Americans would go home, North and South Vietnam would survive under separate regimes, and the Vietnamese would live happily ever after.
Release of the 98-minute documentary, directed by Rory Kennedy, youngest of Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy’s 11 children, coincides with the run-up to the 40th anniversary in April of the final disaster in Vietnam, the surrender of the Saigon government to the North Vietnamese.
Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger.
Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger.
If the film captures the suffering of those “last days,” it also gives Kissinger the benefit of doubts about his role in engineering the false peace. The inference is that he did his best but was deceived by the North Vietnamese. In fact, either Kissinger was engaging in an enormous falsehood or else was totally deluded when he declared, “Peace is at hand,” before signing the accord.
The debacle in Vietnam has certain relevance for Korea.
The U.S. had withdrawn all its troops from Vietnam in the months after the truce was signed. Obviously North Korean demands for the U.S. to cancel military exercises and pull its troops from South Korea would be a prelude to intensified military threats.
There’s no telling whether — or when — the North might turn some of its rhetoric into action. The test firing of missiles, as the North does periodically, is not a good omen.
North Korea now says it won’t negotiate with the U.S. at all — possibly a response to increased U.S. sanctions while the North holds out the vague possibility of maybe talking to the South in an attempt at weakening Washington’s relationships with Seoul. One danger is that Washington eventually might tire of the long-running North-South stalemate while decreasing its dedication to defending the South.
Certainly fatigue, on top of massive anti-war protests in the U.S., had much to do with Kissinger’s falling for the Paris Peace. When John Negroponte, on Kissinger’s negotiating team, questioned the wisdom of the agreement, Kissinger is said to have asked him rhetorically, “Do you want us to stay there forever?” U.S. critics of the American presence in Korea have asked similar questions.
Negroponte, much later the U.S. intelligence chief, doubted if the Christmas bombing that preceded the final talks with the North Vietnamese in Paris had persuaded leaders in Hanoi to give up the drive to take over the South and unite the country. Rather, Negroponte believed they got just the deal that they wanted. Or, as he is said to have remarked later, “We bombed them into accepting their terms.”
The question was whether Kissinger’s boss, President Nixon, was equally deluded. Nixon had promised to transfer much of the responsibility for the war from the U.S. to South Vietnam under a program called “Vietnamization.” In retrospect, Vietnamization was the great blanket over the fig leaf of the Paris Peace — all an elaborate face-saving device for ending U.S. involvement.
We have on occasion heard the word “Koreanization” for the South Koreans to take over all responsibility for their defense. In fact, South Korea is far better equipped than South Vietnam ever was to defend itself against the North.
South Korea has an enormous economy, is capable of mass producing sophisticated weaponry, including ships and planes, and has much more to offer the North Koreans if they ever agreed to realistic economic terms and showed signs of giving up their nuclear and missile programs.
Realistically, however, North Korea is not about to compromise on what its leaders think is their proudest accomplishment, the ability to explode a nuclear device underground. In fact, they’ve been threatening for some time to be able to miniaturize their nukes and attach them to long-range missiles capable of striking targets in the U.S.
Under these circumstances, so-called “Track Two” talks going on periodically among well known U.S. Korea specialists are basically a waste of time, a distraction and possibly a deterrent to resolving differences with the North. These experts seem to think the U.S. should forsake what’s sometimes known as “strategic patience” and talk seriously to the North Koreans in ways they’ll understand.
That’s a strategy that’s been tried and failed. If there’s any lesson to be drawn from the Paris Peace of Vietnam, it is that we don’t need another Kissinger type betraying U.S. policy goals while misleading both the Americans and the people they’re defending.
Columnist Donald Kirk covered the Christmas bombing of Hanoi, the Paris Peace and its aftermath from Saigon and has been following diplomatic maneuvering with North Korea from Seoul and Washington for years. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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