Rep. Jared Huffman assesses peace prospects after trip to South Korea
Rep. Jared Huffman, the Democratic congressman from San Rafael, was far from home — by about 5,600 miles — when he briefly stepped into North Korea.
Huffman, whose legislative forte is natural resources, was part of a five-person congressional delegation plunging into global geopolitics on a five-day visit to South Korea earlier this month.
“A little bit out of the policy wheelhouse that I normally focus on,” he said Monday in a telephone interview, but an important detour.
Korea is “one of our most pressing issues,” Huffman said, at a moment “when all of us are trying to figure out if this diplomatic opening with (North) Korea is real.”
The jury’s still out on that, he said, despite President Donald Trump’s fulsome claims of a breakthrough at his Singapore summit meeting last month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“I do support the diplomatic path,” Huffman said, “but it has to be one that leads to results, and not just a PR exercise. We need to see action and results.”
So far, he said, the historic meeting has mostly been a prestige boost for Kim, the totalitarian dictator of a nation with one of world’s worst human rights records, matched by concessions from Trump, including suspension of joint military exercises with South Korean forces.
“We have elevated his stature and his standing,” Huffman said, and if that goes unreciprocated “then we’ve really had our lunch money stolen.”
The July 5 to 9 trip to South Korea, a bustling democracy that boasts the world’s 12th largest economy, was an eye-opener, he said. On a visit to the Demilitarized Zone, Huffman said he entered a room in one of the light blue buildings that straddle the 160-mile-long line between the two Koreas established in 1953, in the wake of the Korean War — and briefly stepped across the line.
From there, he could see the so-called “peace village,” a collection of brightly painted concrete multi-story buildings and apartments with electric lighting. Far more amenable than anything the average North Korean calls home, the village is also devoid of occupants, a propaganda set piece intended to lure defectors from the south, Huffman said.
Nobody goes in that direction, but Huffman said he also saw the bullet holes in walls on the South Korean side made when a defecting North Korean soldier was wounded while running across the border under a shower of gunfire from his own side.
Built into the mountains behind the “peace village,” North Korea has up to 15,000 cannons and rocket launchers aimed at Seoul, just 35 miles away, and the U.S. military bases beyond.Huffman, along with Reps. Mike Turner, R-Ohio; Jack Bergman, R-Michigan; Cheri Bustos, D-Illinois; and Conor Lamb, D-Pennsylvania, spent most of their time near Seoul, the South Korean capital where 25 million people live literally in their contentious neighbor’s gun sights.
While Americans were rattled last year by the prospect that Kim might have missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland, Huffman said South Koreans live in fear of an artillery barrage that could devastate Seoul and continue for hours before it was thwarted by a counterattack.
About 500,000 American citizens — troops, contractors, business people and their families — reside in Seoul, he said. If a North Korean attack destroyed bridges across the Han River, there would be no way to evacuate Seoul, resulting in “massive casualties” from a conventional, non-nuclear war, Huffman said.
On the diplomatic front, the prospects for nuclear disarmament and potential Korean reunification appear uncertain, he said. North Korea has resumed work on its nuclear program, he noted, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang earlier this month went badly when an anticipated meeting with Kim did not occur.
Security is paramount to South Koreans, and any hope for peace and reunification is welcome, Huffman said.Still, Huffman said, Trump is “extremely popular” with South Koreans, with a favorability rating over 60 percent. That represents a dramatic turnaround from last fall when Trump’s aggressive rhetoric, including calling Kim “Little Rocket Man” on Twitter, made him highly unpopular.
There is “huge excitement” about reunifying the Korean peninsula right now, he said. If the prospect fizzles, Trump’s popularity will plummet, Huffman said.