“The courage to be patient,” is how President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1954, rejected demands for military action against China. Ike’s wisdom then provides good guidance now.
The most important summit involving the Korean Peninsula has just taken place, between freely elected President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Kim Jong Un, hereditary leader of the totalitarian dictatorship in North Korea.
President Moon was sworn in a year ago following a special presidential election. He received approximately 41 percent of the vote, putting him 17 percent ahead of the nearest rival candidate, Hong Jun-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party.
President Moon took office in a time of tension and uncertainty on both sides of the 38th Parallel, where the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) divides Korea. South Korea had just experienced impeachment and removal from office of President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of General Park Chung-hee. He emerged from a military coup in the early 1960s to rule South Korea until his 1979 assassination.
The current chief executive brings diverse useful experience to the top post. His father was a refugee from North Korea. During Moon’s youth, public activism against the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee led to arrest and imprisonment. Reflecting that experience, he pursued a career as a human rights lawyer.
Moon also served in the Republic of Korea army special forces. He saw combat in the DMZ and Moon was chief of staff to earlier President Roh Moo-hyun. He finished a close second to Park Geun-hye in the 2012 presidential election. North Korea greeted the inauguration of a new president in South Korea by launching yet another long-range missile test.
The George W. Bush administration gave emphasis to Six Power diplomacy involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, and Russia plus the U.S., after earlier stressing a unilateral stance in foreign policy. This dramatic reversal provided strong testimony for the value of trying collectively to reach nuclear accord with the isolated communist state. The Obama administration continued the multilateral emphasis.
Economic leverage is important. In 2007, Washington declared Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macau a renegade conduit for Pyongyang’s black market. Macau government authorities froze $25 million in North Korean funds.
Washington offered to release the funds to in return for nuclear restraint. A transfer of funds eventually occurred. Current comprehensive UN sanction exert strong pressure on impoverished North Korea.
History encourages persistence, despite setbacks. The Korean War took an estimated 1 million lives, and transformed the Cold War into a global conflict. President Harry Truman and associates deserve great credit for leading the defense of South Korea after invasion by the North. His successor, President Eisenhower secured an armistice ending the war after massive bombing of the North, plus other moves.
When Eisenhower made the statement emphasizing patience, Communist China had just “convicted” 13 U.S. pilots shot down during the Korean War of espionage, and commenced shelling offshore islands held by Nationalist Chinese forces based in Taiwan. Eventually Beijing released the pilots, and shelling of the islands waned.
Over many years, Pyongyang has become adept at creating crises, recently of the nuclear variety, then stepping back from the brink. For Seoul and Washington, along with our allies, this has been arduous. Nevertheless, war has been averted and regional stability maintained.
Right now, patience is in order. The U.S. should support Moon’s impressive leadership.
Truman and Eisenhower, together, showed us the way.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.