By David K. Shipler
The camera angle was perfect, and it was surely no accident. Caught in the same frame, diagonally in the row behind an unsmiling Vice President Mike Pence, sat Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at the opening of the Olympics in South Korea. Neither, it seemed, dared to look at the other, exchange words, or shake hands.
One interpretation is that Mr. Pence wants to stay alive politically, and that Ms. Kim wants to stay alive, period. Although she’s rumored to be a close and trusted adviser to her older brother, he has shown no compunction in terminating high-ranking individuals, including relatives, who present a threat to his power or deviate from the prescribed path. And Mr. Pence has thinly disguised presidential aspirations; the last thing he needs is a picture of himself shaking hands with the avowed enemy.
It is a peculiar tradition in international relations that showing basic courtesy to your adversary is regarded as a concession, as if a hello or a handshake—not to mention actual conversation—were a grand reward to be conferred only in exchange for some prize from the other side. This kind of thinking has prevented the start of many negotiations where one party or the other demands that certain preconditions be met before talks can begin. Sometimes that works, but often it produces silence and misunderstanding.
The “messages” sent by military actions or visual gestures are usually brittle and dogmatic, lacking the nuance essential to sophisticated approaches across the gulfs of hostility. Whenever the US suspended bombing North Vietnam during a discreet outreach toward launching peace talks, for example, Hanoi interpreted the cessation as pure propaganda aimed at making a warlike America appear conciliatory. When the outreach failed and bombing resumed, the North was convinced it had been right.
Similarly, North Korea’s joint appearance with South Korean athletes in these Winter Games has been dismissed by the Trump administration as propaganda, aimed at driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington and undermining Washington’s campaign to isolate the North further for its threatening nuclear and missile program. It couldn’t also be that the North Korean leader, Mr. Kim, emboldened militarily, is looking not for domination but for security?
Watching the VIP section at the Olympic ceremony was like gleaning policy by studying the lineup of Soviet Politburo members atop the Lenin Mausoleum, and counting the missiles marching past in a parade through Red Square. (Soon, for President Trump’s entertainment, we’ll get to count American missiles rolling along Constitution Avenue.)
As the Korean teams marched together under the neutral flag symbolizing a unified Korean Peninsula, Mr. Pence and his wife remained seated, a technique he copied from the pro football players so vilified by President Trump. Too bad Mr. Pence didn’t take a knee.
How will his defiant gesture be interpreted? As a rebuff to North Korea? As a rebuff to both Koreas? As a statement of opposition to reunification—or to peace on the peninsula? Take your choice. But you can bet that North Korea will see it differently from what the United States may have meant.
As later histories often reveal, misunderstandings during acute tension can lead to absurd miscalculations that look comical in retrospect—or highly dangerous. Several episodes during the Vietnam War were revealed at a joint 1997 conference in Hanoi of former US and North Vietnamese officials.
Comparing notes, they discovered what a pivotal mistake Washington had made in reading elaborate meaning into a coincidence more than three decades earlier. On Feb. 7, 1965, several months before US ground troops were deployed to South Vietnam, North Vietnamese forces attacked an American advisers’ compound and airfield at Pleiku, killing eight Americans and wounding numerous others. On that day, McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, happened to be in Saigon assessing the military situation for President Lyndon B. Johnson. And on the same day, the Soviet Premier, Aleksei Kosygin, was visiting Hanoi.
It was the first attack directly on Americans, and since it coincided with the Bundy and Kosygin visits, Washington read it as a calculated policy move by Hanoi. In retaliation, the US began bombing North Vietnam.
Americans at the conference asked why Hanoi had made the assault then. Across the table, Lieut Gen. Dang Vu Hiep, a former deputy of the North Vietnamese Army’s political department, then stationed near Pleiku, explained: “This was a spontaneous attack by the local commander,” he said, who had acted under general orders to do it when ready. The assault by 30 commandos had been planned long in advance; the timing was coincidental. “We did not know Bundy was in Saigon. We were just attacking,” said General Hiep. He told me during a recess that Kosygin “was not pleased” but apparently didn’t feel free to say so publicly.
This came as a revelation to Robert McNamara, defense secretary at the time, who had led the way in organizing the 1997 conference. Had he known about the accident of timing, he said, “I think we’d have put less weight on it and put less interpretation on it as indicative of North Vietnam’s aggressiveness.”
Mutual suspicion is a lens through which innocent mistakes can be distorted into assumptions of malice. As one effort to get negotiations going, for example, the American Ambassador to Poland, John Gronouski, was scheduled to meet with the North Vietnamese Ambassador on Dec. 6, 1966 to receive a reply to a proposal for talks. Gronouski waited in the office of the Polish Foreign Minister, Adam Rapacki, but the Vietnamese envoy did not show up. For 30 years this had been interpreted as a rebuff.
But at the conference, a retired Vietnamese diplomat, Nguyen Dinh Phuong, gave another version. He had been dispatched from Hanoi to Warsaw for the meeting, he said. He had arrived on Dec. 3 (a day that bombing was resumed) and waited with his ambassador at the North Vietnamese Embassy on Dec. 6. ''We waited the whole day,'' he said, ''but the US Ambassador did not show up. On the 7th, the US bombed more forcefully in downtown Hanoi. We concluded that the U.S. did not want to have negotiations.''
Today it would be wishful thinking to imagine that North Korea wants negotiations that might lead to a reduction or elimination of its nuclear arsenal, which is clearly regarded as a deterrent against an American attack. But at the brink of war, amid mutual vilification, the chance of miscalculation is high. If there were ever a moment for direct dialogue to reduce the probability of military accident, this would be it. At least South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been invited by Ms. Kim, at the behest of her brother, to visit Pyongyang, where even fruitless talks might ease tensions.
As for the US and North Korea, perhaps secret communications are ongoing, although no such indication could be seen in Mr. Pence’s frosty demeanor in the vicinity of Ms. Kim. Contacts wouldn’t be technically hard to arrange. North Korea has a delegation in New York at the UN, and both countries have embassies in third countries, where their ambassadors or other staff could converse—provided they didn’t get confused about where they were supposed to meet.