Friday, January 19, 2018

Ping-Pong diplomacy revisited: The two Koreas Olympic love-fest

The lightning negotiations and cooperation between North and South Korea for the Olympics is being compared to the emergence of a bromance between President Nixon and Chairman Mao in  1971, almost a half-century ago.

Ping-pong diplomats: Zhuang Zedong and Glenn Cowan
In the midst of the Vietnam War which had dominated international relations and domestic politics for years, a chance encounter between Zhuang Zedong and Glenn Cowan, two participants in a table tennis tournament in Japan, and the resulting friendly exchanges between the two stars, one an American, the other Chinese, led to the Chinese to inviting the American team  to come on over and stage a few exhibition matches.

After 22 years of American refusal to recognize or even say "hello" to the government of China the contact over a few ping-pong games led to an official Nixon state state visit a few months later.

China's motive --to break its isolation-- was obvious, but how could this be with a rabid anticommunist like Nixon in the White House?

Well, it turned out that Nixon was not the character he'd been portraying in the soap opera of American electoral politics. But mostly, it was about the American defeat in Vietnam.

Defeat? Yes, defeat. War is the continuation of politics by other means. And the United States had been  politically defeated despite its overwhelming economic and military superiority.

Ping-pong diplomacy broke out in April of 1971, and here's how Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr., one of the most highly regarded American military historians, described the situation in Vietnam in the Armed Forces Journal in June of 1971:
The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at anytime in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.

By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having _refused_ combat, murdering their officers and non commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous.... 
"Frag incidents" or just "fragging" is current soldier slang in Vietnam for the murder or attempted murder of strict, unpopular, or just aggressive officers and NCOs....

Word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units.

In one such division -- the morale plagued Americal -- fraggings during 1971 have been authoritatively estimated to be running about one a week.
Remember, this is a full-bird colonel, one step below a general, describing in real time the state of U.S. forces in the middle of a shooting war. Implicit in this description was not just defeat, but the danger of a mass rebellion or mutiny by troops in Vietnam and perhaps all over the world.

Basically, ping-pong diplomacy was about the Chinese taking advantage of the desperate situation of the United States in Vietnam to break Washington's economic, diplomatic and political blockade against them.

Russia also took advantage of this situation, through detente and deals to reduce military spending on things like nuclear bombs and ICBMs.

What both Moscow and Beijing could offer was to pressure North Vietnam to accept some sort of peace deal that Nixon could use to pacify antiwar public opinion and (hopefully) avoid an openly catastrophic defeat in a shooting war. Of course, little they cared that, as Che Guevara had explained, from a revolutionary perspective, Vietnam's fight was more important right then than either country's advancement of their economic and diplomatic goals, even if quite legitimate in and of themselves.

When politicians, gasbags and scribblers recall 1970s ping-pong diplomacy as the model for the rapidly escalating rapprochement between North and South, there's more than surface amity.

The United States has put itself in a no-win situation in the Korean peninsula. Since the end of World War II Washington has relied on its military superiority. Trump thought he could use bluff and bluster to score another "win" (I don't believe he cares about the outcome beyond "proving" the incompetence --or worse-- of previous administrations). He thought with America's "military might" he would succeed.

He is acting the same way he did in business, where it led  his projects to multiple bankruptcies, forcing him eventually to become a reality TV star and "luxury brand" to (mostly foreign) suckers. Another Kardashian, but without the name or looks.

On the other hand Kim Jong-un played Trump like a violin in the hands of a concertmaster. He understood that Trump's posturing, bluffing and bluster would disrupt the united front against North Korea, and took advantage of it with a very public mad dash to obtain a nuclear deterrent, or at least a credible appearance of having one.

He understood there was nothing Trump could do about it without at least seeming to put South Korea and Japan on the brink of annihilation, as well as possibly provoking a response from China or Russia, both of which have land  borders with North Korea.

And Kim had an ace up his sleeve: the victory in South Korean elections of a party that has promoted better relations and mutual economic entanglement with the North. Not because this party is composed of angels, but its leaders reckon that given the South's overwhelming economic superiority, it had everything to gain by bringing North Korea under its wing and reducing American influence over the peninsula..

Having established --or at least convinced everyone-- of his capacity for nuclear retaliation, Kim now plays the "can't we all just get along card" with exquisite precision: on the eve of the Olympics and with a moving gesture --Koreans of the North and South marching together under the same banner-- that will bring a tear to the eye of everyone save the most hardened cynic.

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