This site best viewed with Firefox

Oh Henry! - A Chinese Box


There's been a bit of unexpected and positive news coming from the Korean peninsula recently, as the South has agreed in principle to meet with the North on talks to help bring down the overall level of animosity and aggression in the region.

There is a cynical undercurrent among the diplomats who believe that these talks will likely just be a sham. After all, North Korea is known for it's outlandish outbursts, not it's calm reason. But, as I assured the president before my Paris peace talks with the North Vietnamese, the simple act of bringing these people to this point is a major accomplishment, and a cause for optimism.

Of course, before engaging in the summit the South Koreans should be prepared for a fact I had to learn the hard way: they will get absolutely nothing tangible from the North. No concessions, no agreements involving weapons or military actions, no admission of responsibility for any past deeds, and no guarantees of a continued truce. The North Koreans, like the North Vietnamese, are an adversary who will evade, deny, deflect, and confuse, and who often completely contradict their own statements and positions within the same sentence. The North will use the talks as a publicity stunt, seeking to portray themselves as reasonable and open minded to the global community, instead of as the collection of madmen and barbarians they truly are.

The one advantage the South Koreans have over me is that, being Asian themselves, they are already naturally inclined to understand the deceit and duplicity that lies within the Oriental heart.  That realization came as some surprise to me, as I had not imagined any race to be so devious.  What was I, a mind reader to know such a thing?

The bigger question is obviously, why would the North agree to such talks now? Why, after a year of unparalleled belligerence and saber rattling, would the North suddenly want to appear compliant? The obvious answer is they are hoping to once again dupe the United States and our allies into providing much-needed aid in terms of food and money. They've certainly used this tactic before with past presidents to great success.  It seemed that whenever the North needed assistance, they would become an unbearable annoyance, and then would extort the West before calming down.

But that's too pat an answer, and doesn't give any credit to the deeply inscrutable nature of these dybbuks.  As I learned long ago, when an Asian comes to you with a gift, it's usually accompanied with a very large bill.

No, the real reason for this sudden olive branch by North Korea is because South Korea (and by extension, the US) is getting assistance from an unexpected source: China.

During the Paris peace talks, I was working like a schlemiel behind the scenes trying to get either the Soviet Union or China to assist us by convincing the Viet Cong to be honest and sincere in negotiations. We poked, threatened, and begged the Russians and Chinese for help, because we knew that without it the Vietnamese would have no incentive to engage in genuine talks. So long as the Soviets and Chinese were encouraging them, they could behave as they wished.  Despite my best efforts, I too often found myself exasperated.  During sensitive negotiations Le Duc Tho would just sit there, kibbitzing about the soup, instead of addressing the peace process. I should be there with nothing better to do?  Never mind that we were acting in good faith and only wanted a sensible resolution to the conflict.  Lack of any pressure from the Soviets or Chinese meant the Vietnamese could, and did, squander time and energy like little pishers.

Today, of course, China is much different than it was during Mao's time. Who knew that suddenly making a bit of money isn't so bad anymore? Chinese communism, while still oppressive and corrupt, is much more welcoming of the income it can generate through partnerships with Western business. And so, there is little coincidence that North Korea's sudden burst of diplomatic friendship happens to come at the same time as Chinese President Hu Jintao's summit with President Obama, and meetings with American industrial moguls.

The Chinese are nothing if not pragmatic.  It's clear that they understand that despite their commitment to propping up the meshuggah Kim Jong Il, their future lies with General Motors and Boeing. And so, at some point, the Chinese must have realized that it would be to their great benefit to maybe yank on the chain around the North Korean neck and tell them to heel.

Of course, given that it is the Chinese who are behind this sudden North Korean amity, it's safe to assume the worst. Better to not be caught with our trousers down. The Chinese may have told the North Koreans to play nice for now, but there is little point in believing they have told them to do anything more than that, or for any longer than needed.

Orientals are very shrewd negotiators, and one must be able to peer behind the porcelain mask of friendship in order to determine their true nature of enmity. China's influence in bringing the North Koreans should not be misconstrued.  This is a temporary tactic, designed for China's benefit so they can strike a favorable bargain with the US.  And, the carrot for the North Koreans is likely the promise of increased Chinese aid once they reap the harvest of these seeds.

As fellow Asians, I am sure the South Koreans understand this.  And, as Asians, I am sure they have something up their sleeves as well.

Zie Gezunt!