The PUST hostage crisis is a fitting symbol of the futility of engaging Pyongyang

Just one week after I predicted that the misbegotten experiment known as the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology would soon be at the center of a hostage crisis, the inevitable has happened.

North Korean state media reports the country has detained a U.S. citizen — the fourth U.S. citizen being held there amid rising tensions between the two countries. The official Korean Central News Agency identifies the man detained Saturday as Kim Hak Song, an employee of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST).

He was detained by North Korea “on suspension of his hostile acts against it,” according to the news agency, and “a relevant institution is now conducting detailed investigation into his crimes.” [….]

Kim Hak Song is the second PUST staffer detained within a month. As NPR’s Lauren Frayer reports from Seoul, the first, named Kim Sang Duk, “was arrested late last month while trying to leave North Korea, and accused of trying to overthrow the government in Pyongyang. North Korean media haven’t said whether the two men knew each other.”

The other two detained U.S. citizens “are already serving prison terms, with hard labor, for alleged ‘anti-state acts’ and ‘espionage,'” Lauren adds. [NPR, Merrit Kennedy]

NBC, drawing a conclusion that’s increasingly difficult to avoid, calls the latest arrests “hostage diplomacy.” President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Under his successor, Barack Obama, the State Department’s official position was that North Korea has not sponsored acts of terrorism since 1987. Discuss among yourselves.

Meanwhile, this event is opening a contrast between the Trump administration’s rhetoric and its policy — after all, rhetoric is what you say (and let’s give Rex Tillerson credit for saying the right things); policy is what you actually do. For all of Donald Trump’s talk of “maximum pressure,” there still isn’t really a Trump administration North Korea policy worth speaking of. Below the secretarial level, most of the second-level appointments of the officials who turn the dials and pull the levers of policy still haven’t been made. More than 100 days into this administration, the administration has yet to take simple, discretionary executive actions like re-adding North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, issuing sanctions designations that go beyond the slow pace of the Obama administration, or suspending PUST’s Commerce and Treasury Department licenses as U.N. resolutions require us to do, preferably before the next class of hackers graduates.

Still, it’s unlikely that revoking those licenses would have prevented this crisis or its likely growth over the coming weeks as Pyongyang takes more PUST faculty members hostage. After all, anyone who still believes that economic, cultural, or scientific engagement can change Pyongyang for the better would probably still defy travel warnings, common sense, and perhaps even the law to stay in Pyongyang anyway. One could hardly invent a better demonstration of how “engagement” has failed to change Pyongyang than a hostage crisis at PUST, the largest remaining experiment in the Sunshine Policy, but anyone who was open to drawing obvious conclusions about the potential of that policy from the abundant evidence probably did so years ago — after the killing of Park Wang-ja at Kumgang, the first Kaesong shutdown, the second Kaesong shutdown, the Cheonan attack, the Yeonpyeong attack, any of the last five nuke tests, the embarrassing flops of the AP’s Pyongyang bureau and Koryolink, the failure of 20 years of international aid to end North Korea’s food crisis, or the murder of Kim Jong-nam.

The human mind arrives at its most stubborn beliefs for reasons that transcend logic, reason, and evidence. It is often the highly educated and intelligent who are, perhaps out of intellectual arrogance, the last to abandon beliefs built on a foundation of emotions. For 30 years after the end of World War II, Japanese soldiers (the last of them an intelligence officer, Lt. Hiroo Onoda) were still emerging from their jungle hideouts on islands all over the South Pacific, having refused until then to believe that the war was over. In certain parts of Washington, one still encounters equally stubborn believers in the idea that there is a kinder, gentler Kim Jong-un beneath a disposition that became obvious to the rest of us years ago. Increasingly, I find myself tempted to grab these North Korea holdouts by their shoulders, shake them vigorously, and shout, “Come out of the jungle, Lieutenant Onoda! The war has been over for 20 years!”

It is in this historical and evidentiary setting that Moon Jae-In, who commands the largest cadre of these holdouts, will begin his minority presidency of another (de facto) island in the Pacific this week — bereft of a strong popular mandate, a plausible approach to North Korea, or the support of his most important ally. One hopes that it will take less time for President Moon than Lt. Onoda to draw the obvious conclusions, but if you’ve explored his background, don’t count on it. In which case, Mr. Moon’s party could face some extinction-level losses in the National Assembly in the coming months, and will richly deserve to.

1 Comment

  1. Other than Otto Warmbier, all the remaining hostages are Korean-Americans. I don’t know what that says other than the fact that some of my fellow Korean-Americans are pretty damn stupid when it comes to North Korea. All one has to do is to look at what Ken Roh is doing right now with his Minjok TV.

    Speaking of “stupid”, its just a matter of a time before Moon Jae In becomes the next president of ROK. I don’t how this is happening other than possibly a strong but recent backlash against the ousted Park presidency and unrealistic expectation that Moon will reverse the shitty economy and high unemployment rates for the young people in the south.

    We shall see if these things really matter when Kim Jong Un has the nuclear power to really threaten the US and Moon is nowhere to be found along with a very very small support for ROK from Washington.




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