Columnists, Columns, Opinion

Lessons from the Left: North and South Korea united at the Olympics is a good start

In a heavily armed, nuclear world, soft power is the most convincing and effective of powers we have. So naturally, we ought to use it. And soft power shouldn’t be reserved to veiled threats around the negotiating table. It could be something as simple as shaking someone’s hand over someone else’s, sanctioning a nation, cracking a joke with a certain leader or inviting a country to the Winter Olympics to complete under a united flag.

I’ve seen a lot of cynical posts in my lifetime. If you’re on social media, you know what I mean — every other post is cynical, crude and contradicting. People expect the worse, and honestly, it’s hard to blame them. Things aren’t great in America right now, no matter how you twist it.

However, I think cynicism is misplaced when it comes to Korea, and especially when it comes Korea competing at the Olympics.

Aggression and coercion are on their way out as effective diplomatic strategies. Certainly, you could say that Kim Jong Un got to where he is on the world stage by employing aggression and using threats, and you’d be exactly right. But as far as a final peace strategy goes, talking tough doesn’t work. It suspends trust, dials up tension and makes resolving the issue a matter of calming people down rather than hammering out effective treaties and compromises.

On some level, Kim’s realized that — he sent athletes to the Winter Olympic stadium, with his sister to watch over them. He even sent an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to meet and talk in person. Tough talk, he figured, could only get him so far. Now it’s time to do what North Korea ought to do — sit down and talk.

For once, America’s not at the party. In fact, America wasn’t even invited. Since the middle of the century, we’ve been holding on to the notion that whatever we say and do, the world says and does in tandem. And that used to be true. But America as the leader in world affairs is becoming less of a reality everyday, contingent on the fact that we’re conducting outdated and dangerous Cold War Era diplomacy in the technological age.

I believe a fall from grace isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it will provide us an opportunity to reflect and heal our gaping wounds before inflicting them on other countries. But that’s for another day.

When North and South Korea marched under a united flag, energy was extraordinarily high. The South Korean president, Mr. Moon gave the delegation a standing ovation, and Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, was smiling ear-to-ear. The room was electric — except, of course, for Mike Pence, who remained seated, faced forward and stoic. It was a remarkable picture — the whole room tending toward unification and armistice, while an American leader was gesturing toward conflict, tension and war.

The idea that we can’t accept or do business with North Korea because it’s a threatening nuclear power is garbage. We accept, recognize and do business with Russia and Iran, both of which are threats and have or have had nuclear weapons at some point. The idea that we can’t accept or do business with North Korea because they infringe on people’s natural, civil and human rights is just as ridiculous. Not only do we violate the civil liberties of marginalized groups at home every day, but we’ve also allied pretty closely with Saudi Arabia and Israel — countries that are at the very least questionable with respect to human rights. And, finally, the idea that we can’t accept or do business with North Korea because we don’t agree with or recognize their system of government is also a baseless reason. We converse with, make peace with and trade with dictatorships across the world. We’ve even installed dictators in countries whose popular-elected governments we didn’t like (think: U.S. intervention in Chile).

So, I think getting North Korea to the Olympics is a good thing. We often underestimate the power of face-to-face human interactions and the role that plays in diplomacy “bigly.” To see a person in real time is to see their personhood and respect, and on some level, their humanity.

Fighting on Twitter and on distant phone calls is neglecting the humanity aspect in all of this. It’s wrong to be cynical about North Korea, but unfortunately for the United States, what happens is not up to us. We’ve removed ourselves from the conversation and thus withdrawn from the world stage — perhaps, you might think, for good.

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