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Common sense about North Korea

Jack Lessenberry

Don Haffner is a witty and smart guy in his late 60s who grew up in Downriver Detroit’s working class town of Allen Park. Growing up, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, except not to become one more cog on the assembly line.

So he went to tiny Albion College, until one day in 1972 when he was about to graduate and got a letter asking him if he might want to consider serving in South Korea in the Peace Corps. He did, and it changed his life. South Korea is prosperous now, and the United States hasn’t sent Peace Corps volunteers there in 35 years.

But that wasn’t the case in the early 70s, less than a generation after the entire country was devastated by the Korean War. The experience was, indeed, life-changing. Don, who I’ve known slightly for years, was sent to a town then called Mukho only about 40 miles from the infamous 38th parallel, where he taught English in middle school.

After three years in the Peace Corps, he spent additional years in Korea as the country director of the Pearl Buck Foundation. He’s done a lot of things since, and this spring published an entertaining and thoughtful memoir of his Peace Corps years, called Mukho Memories. That was before the leaders of both our country and North Korea decided to engage in a series of schoolyard insults and not-so-vague threats about nuclear weapons.

Don lived in South Korea at a time when phrases like “death to Communism” were standard greetings, but I thought he might have some worthwhile observations on the present crisis. “North Korea has always seemed to desire recognition and respect,” he told me.

He’s paid a lot of attention to it over the years, and he said Pyongyang has responded favorably on those rare occasions when high-ranking officials or famous Americans have visited the country. “Honey catches more flies than vinegar,” he said, adding, “We’d be better off right now if we had used more carrots and fewer sticks in the last few decades.”

Haffner has a number of advanced degrees, including a Master’s in international training, but doesn’t claim to be a diplomat. But he does speak Korean and know a fair amount about how Koreans see the world, and believes in their culture, calling names – "little rocket man"– is as or more counter-productive as it would be here.

“Most of us learn that name-calling isn’t appropriate in elementary school,” he said dryly, reflecting on one famous American who clearly doesn’t understand that.

Haffner doesn’t exactly expect to be asked for advice by Washington. But if he were, he would say “over the years, our Secretary of State in each administration should have unequivocally stated that the USA has no desire to invade North Korea.”

Everyone knows we don’t. “It would be far too costly and very risky behavior. So why not say so?”

Haffner says, “It still leaves all options on the table should North Koreans attack. It really gives up nothing and, in essence, just states the obvious.”

So why not start saying so right now?

You might say that the answer, as the cliché goes, is above both of our pay grades. Yet it does seem to make a lot of sense.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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