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‘It’s so close’: DMZ visit brings North Korean threat into focus for Harris

Leah Millis/Pool Photo via AP
Vice President Kamala Harris uses binoculars at the military observation post as she visits the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea on Sept. 29, 2022.

Vice President Kamala Harris engaged in statement-making and sightseeing on the final day of her recent Northeast Asian odyssey, before North Korea bid her a rude farewell by firing another pair of missiles soon after she’d boarded Air Force Two at South Korea’s Osan Air Base for the return flight to Washington. 

The missiles plopped harmlessly into the sea off the North’s east coast, as had a pair of missiles fired before her visit, but the message was clear. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un would defy American and South Korean attempts to talk him into giving up his nuclear and missile program in the deepening confrontation with both of them, as well as Japan. 

Considering all Harris had to pack into one long, tiring day in South Korea after three hectic days in Japan, she might be forgiven for an embarrassing gaffe. Inside the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, staring across the line into the North, she heaped praise on U.S. ties with “the Republic of North Korea.”

Uh-oh. The script, of course, said “the Republic of Korea,” the South’s formal name, but Harris, not missing a beat, was still able to jab at North Korea’s brutal dictatorship, which she contrasted as scripted with the South’s “thriving democracy.” And, picking up on the familiar cliches and watchwords of a steady stream of American officials over the years, she wanted both South and North Koreans to know that Washington’s bond with “the Republic of Korea” was indeed “ironclad.” There is, as U.S. officials are forever saying, “no daylight between us.”

If the wording was hardly original, it had to be heartening to South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has been tightening ties with the United States ever since his inauguration in May after an extremely close victory over a leftist rival. Harris and Yoon met before her visit to the DMZ, focusing not only on the usual affirmations of the strength of the alliance but also on economic issues that plague relations.

For many South Koreans, questions about President Biden’s pet Inflation Reduction Act were more important than ringing declarations they’ve heard many times of unity against North Korea.  Yoon, as reported by the South’s Yonhap News, expressed “concerns that the law will hurt Korean carmakers by giving tax credits only to electric vehicles assembled in North America.”

Harris, who clearly had been carefully briefed on the proper response, deflected the criticism, saying that she and Biden would “look into it carefully to find ways to resolve South Korea’s concerns.” It was up to Yoon’s spokesman to report on this bit of badinage while the White House dwelled on the threat posed by the DPRK, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Together, said the White House, the South Korean president and the American vice president “condemned the DPRK’s provocative nuclear rhetoric and ballistic missile launches” and “discussed our response to potential future provocations, including through trilateral cooperation with Japan.” Of course, they also called yet again for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, which Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un agreed on in the vague joint statement they signed during their summit in Singapore in June 2018.

More than four years after that halcyon day, Harris underscored American defiance of the North from her vantage below the North-South line where the Korean War Armistice was signed in July 1953. Staring at North Korean guards on the other side, she couldn’t help but sense the imminence of the North Korean threat.

“It’s so close,” was her unscripted spontaneous response to the drama of the moment. The North Koreans, wearing hazmat garb to guard against the spread of COVID-19 from the South, were watching through binoculars and presumably photographing her every move, as they always do when visitors, including just plain tourists, venture to the DMZ. Told by an American escort officer that American and North Korean soldiers have been known to communicate by megaphones, Harris remarked, “That’s high-tech; we’ve stepped into history.”

Underlining the failure to get anywhere with North Korea, Harris in both Korea and Japan talked up the need for cooperation between them. A new word, “trilateralism,” is entering the lexicon of efforts to persuade South Korea and Japan to discard historic animosities and work with the United States on ways to defend themselves against North Korea.

Certainly, trilateralism was a highlight of Harris’ visit to Japan, where she attended the state funeral in Tokyo of Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister who was assassinated in July. That done, she met with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, reiterating the need for Japan and South Korea to cooperate despite bitter historical issues from Japan’s colonial rule over the South.

The Japanese may have been more interested in her emphasis on the defense of Taiwan, the independent Chinese province island state. To affirm Biden’s commitment to Taiwan, she stepped aboard an American destroyer, the USS Howard, at the huge American naval base in Yokosuka south of Tokyo, accusing China of having “flexed its military and economic might” with “provocations across the Taiwan Strait.”

Pointedly, when she got to Korea, Harris did not raise the defense of Taiwan with President Yoon. Anxious not to offend China, the South’s biggest trading partner and also North Korea’s sole real ally and benefactor, Yoon and his aides have been extremely guarded and sensitive when asked about the danger of Chinese attack on Taiwan, avoiding any pledge to join in the island’s defense.

In a solid sign of trilateral cooperation, however, South Korean, Japanese and American warships staged anti-submarine exercises. The aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, having wound up five days of war games with South Korean air and naval forces, led the simulated hunt for North Korean subs. The overriding concern is North Korea’s success in developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles amid worries the North will soon conduct its seventh nuclear test, its first since September 2017.

Aside from such cosmic issues, Harris got into another sensitive topic in Korea — the role of women in what some see as an irredeemably male chauvinist society. She found time to lead a roundtable with women, saying, “If we want to strengthen democracy, we must pay attention to gender equity.”

She also reportedly touched on the topic with Yoon, who has paid lip service to women’s rights while attempting to do away with the “ministry of gender equality,” an agency whose good deeds seemed more symbolic than substantive.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

Tags Biden Demilitarized zone Japan–South Korea relations Kamala Harris Kim Jong Un North Korea South Korea Yoon Suk-yeol

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