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Opportunity for peace in Korea - don't blow it
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The armistice to end the fighting, but not the war between North and South Korea, was signed in July 1953. Over 28,000 American troops have remained along the demilitarized zone for some 65 years until today.

Meanwhile, South Korea has prospered. North Korea languished under the dictatorships of Kim Il-sung; his son, Kim Jong-il; and currently under his grandson, Kim Jong-un. Its citizens remain impoverished and isolated from the world at large. North Korea's poverty has not stopped it from developing nuclear weapons.

The continued American presence is intended to protect South Korea from another invasion from the north. This fundamental fact, and implications of formally ending the war, seems lost on politicians and chattering media pundits.

The U.S. sees North Korea as a threat and, therefore, maintains a strong military presence and conducts joint exercises with South Korea and Japan. North Korea sees the U.S. military and those joint exercises with South Korea and Japan as a threat. Each party sees the other as a threat, and the tension escalates. It all falls back on the original tension between North and South Korea.

Major attention has been focused on relations between North Korea and the U.S. It's as if the original reason for tension, the standoff between North and South Korea, has been lost - eclipsed by the standoff between the U.S. and North Korea.

It was worrisome, even frightening, when President Trump began with his childish, unpresidential name-calling of North Korea's President Kim, threatening the peninsula with unprecedented fire and fury. American hawks, including recently installed National Security Advisor John Bolton, talked casually of a preemptive strike on North Korea, a "bloody nose" to serve as warning to North Korea. That would be the absolute worst, most dangerous and irresponsible thing we could do.

Fortunately, South Korea's President Moon Jae-in had early on expressed a desire to move toward easing tension between the two Koreas. His invitation to North Korea to participate in the Winter Olympics, and Kim's desire to participate, were welcome developments.

This was followed by Trump's surprising unorthodox acceptance of Kim's invitation to talk. Trump's change of tone is a welcome development. But the ultimate goal of mutually assured peace has not yet been achieved.

President Trump is already claiming an accomplishment for which "other presidents have failed." No, they have not "failed." The next Korean War has thus far been avoided. It can be "success" to avoid a war long enough that the reason for it goes away. That is possible if prospective negotiations are handled prudently.

Success has a thousand fathers - failure is an orphan. President Trump would like to claim 100 percent of any future success. However, if the war between the two Koreas formally ends, tension is de-escalated and all parties, the U.S., China, Japan and especially the two Koreas, are satisfied, there is plenty of credit for "success" to go around.

Perhaps the greatest threat to successful negotiations is for either the U.S. or North Korea to set the bar too high, resulting in anything less than accomplishment of 100 percent of their objectives to be considered failure. Diplomatic negotiations are always painstaking, slow moving and require much patience. Patience is not among America's most prominent traits. And it surely is not one of President Trump's traits. Success will not come with Trump pounding on the table and making "take it or leave it" types of demands. Successful diplomatic negotiations do not work that way.

North Korea would like to see total withdrawal of American troops from South Korea. It's doubtful that the U.S. will agree to this. The U.S. would like to see total denuclearization of North Korea, with verifiable inspections. If Kim agrees to this, fine. But Kim knows that neither Libya's Omar Kaddafi nor Iraq's Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. Both are dead men. Kim prefers to die of old age.

Kim might agree to a nuclear freeze if the U.S. guarantees not to conduct a preemptive strike, and perhaps reduce, if not eliminate, American troop presence. That should be considered "success," at least for now.

Reduced economic sanctions against North Korea and lower American military presence might further entice Kim to freeze, or maybe even eliminate, his nuclear program. That would be another win/win situation. Anything that increases North Korean trade with the rest of the world would help North Korea's long-suffering citizens, as well as improve Kim's standing with his own people. And as American military forces are now overstretched, reduced forces in South Korea would release them for other duties - we have the ongoing "forever" war in Afghanistan, 800 military bases in 70 countries and military personnel deployed in some 150 countries. We should welcome reduction of need for military presence in Korea.

Senator Lindsey Graham and Trump supporters are prematurely touting the possibility of a Nobel Peace Prize for Trump. Trump himself tells us he deserves it. It's way too early for that as there are numerous hurdles to surmount before peace is assured on the peninsula. And threats to rip up the Iran nuclear deal are not consistent with nomination for a peace prize.

Although Trump would like to make it so, this is not all about him. It is all about making the world a more peaceful, safer place for everybody. If, as President, he helps bring it about, he deserves some credit - but surely not all of it. Major credit should go to the Koreans.

If it occurs, and if Trump is praised for having a role in bringing peace to the Korean peninsula, it might even give him some incentive to strive for improved relations with Iran.

If he really wants to be even considered for a Nobel Peace Prize - and that's quite a stretch - he first has to play a constructive role in negotiations with North Korea. And avoid a worst thing he could do - rip up the Iran nuclear deal.

- John Waelti of Monroe, a retired professor of economics, can be reached at His column appears Fridays in the Monroe Times.