1. It’s Tuesday, February 13, 2018.
2. On this day 67 years ago, Chinese forces launched a battle near the South Korean city of Jipyeong-ri.
It was during the second period of the Korean War that the forces opposing us – the People’s Republic of China and what we now call the North Koreans – held the upper hand.
That didn’t last. In this battle, in which the United Nations forces were outnumbered anywhere from 2-to-1 to 6-to-1, the Chinese were turned back. It was the high water mark of the Communists’ march against the South Koreans.
3. Jipyeong-ri is on my mind partly because of the Winter Olympics – it’s about halfway between Seoul and Pyeongchang.
It’s also on my mind because my 23-year-old son is headed to South Korea. He’s going to Incheon, scene of perhaps the most famous battle of the Korean War, where he’ll be teaching English to elementary school students.
(If you came to a full stop after that last sentence – wondering why the hell Korean 8-year-olds learn English when American 8-year-olds don’t seem to, much less learn to speak another language – let’s save the education discussion for another time.)
The Korean peninsula, while not always as heated as the Middle East, has remained among the world’s most troubled spots since the end of World War II. You’ve got the divided Korea; two huge nasty-tempered neighbors in China and Russia; the country all of them hate, Japan; and then us.
We sacrificed 37,000 of our soldiers during the three years of the most intense conflict in the early 1950s. Up until now, presidents of both parties have been inclined to avoid a repeat of that.
You would think the idea of the two Koreas, if not reconciling, easing tensions to keep people alive is a good thing for all concerned. As bad as the war was nearly 70 years ago, any conflict between Team North Korea – which probably includes China and Russia – and Team South Korea, with the U.S. and Japan on its side, will be horribly deadly pretty fast.
That might be why there was such a hubbub about the fact that North Korea joined the Winter Olympic festivities in Pyeongchang. That the two Olympic teams marched into the stadium as one. And that the sister of North Korea’s ruler sat in the VIP box, smiling and putting a benign face on a regime whose ruthlessness toward its own people ranks with the worst in history.
The world sees that, understandably, as a net good.
4. But there’s one complication.
While most Americans join the rest of the world in not wanting World War III, ’m not sure that includes Trump and his Stepford vice president Mike Pence.
The threats made by Trump earlier this year – it seems like the “much bigger” button tweet was a long time ago; it was last month – did nothing to ameliorate tensions in the region. Since then we’ve heard the term “bloody nose,” the absolutely preposterous notion that the United States could do some sort of masterfully strategic strike that wipes our North Korea’s nascent nuclear arsenal.
So if Trump and his boys wanted to move the peace process along, they wouldn’t have sent Mike Pence to the middle of this deceleration of Korean tension. This might have been a better job for one of the more inocuous Trump sycophants – what was John Stamos doing last weekend?
Pence is so bad at putting America’s best foot forward that even members of the Olympic team want nothing to do with him. He offends gay athletes. He offends women. And he’s not particularly sensitive to athletes of color. Two strikes doesn’t begin to describe the hole he creates.
So Pence didn’t seem to acknowledge the presence of Kim’s sister. OK, if easing tensions of a nuclear doesn’t carry more weight than focusing on the Kim family’s horror show, maybe you can understand that.
But being a guest of the president of South Korea and not standing when his nation’s athletes walk into the stadium – even if they’re accompanied by athletes from North Korea – is stupid, petulant and counterproductive. It makes him and Trump look like idiots – OK, that’s not hard, but still.
5. So who looked better?
Folks, it’s no contest. The world doesn’t want the Korean peninsula incincerated. And, with one of the two greatest accomplishments of my life about to spend a year teaching 8-year-olds that there’s no such thing as 12 midnight, you shouldn’t trust anyone wearing a Yankee hat and the words to “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” that world most assuredly includes me.
On the way to the airport, we stopped at an otherwise wonderful diner in Bayside, Queens, that has humongous hamburgers. My son won’t be having anything like them for awhile.
Alas, on one of the TV screens was Fox News. And while I was blessed not to hear what Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity were saying, the lower thirds told the story – their take was the liberal media fawned over Kim’s sister.
But Trump and Pence handed the propaganda win to Kim and his sister. They get a gold medal for clueless.
Maybe the idea was to keep their base roused. Maybe they’re trying to build support for the day when they inevitably act against Kim and North Korea.
Here’s the thing: I’m not the only American parent with skin in this game. The parents of members of the U.S. 8th Army, about 37,000 strong, care about what happens there. Families of business people dealing with such economic powerhouses as Samsung, LG and Hyundai care.
I’m not ignorant or naive about Kim Jong Un. Or his sister. They both have a half-brother he arranged to have killed. They starve their own people. They want nuclear weapons.
It’s just those of us with loved ones on the Korean peninsula – in Seoul, Pyeongchang, Jipyeong-ri or Incheon – are not interested in seeing them become collateral damage.