Tim Woodward

For Boisean present at armistice, North Korea’s bravado is nothing new

Richard Hart holds a pen that one of the admirals used to sign the Korean War armistice. Hart has a unique perspective on what’s happening in North Korea. He was a young army stenographer at the 1953 Panmunjom talks — the last or one of a very few who were there and are still alive.
Richard Hart holds a pen that one of the admirals used to sign the Korean War armistice. Hart has a unique perspective on what’s happening in North Korea. He was a young army stenographer at the 1953 Panmunjom talks — the last or one of a very few who were there and are still alive. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Could North Korea’s dictator be the most deranged world leader since Adolph Hitler?

Not necessarily. Josef Stalin comes to mind. Idi Amin, Pol Pot …

But with his unstable personality and expanding nuclear capacity, Kim Bad Haircut has the potential to inflict more destruction than any of them. Outside of his hermit kingdom, the world is pretty much in agreement that this is a seriously crazy bad guy.

He reminds me of a kid playing with fireworks. While the rest of the world earnestly ponders terrorist attacks, climate change and other problems that threaten our stability and way of life, he’s jumping up and down saying, “Hey, look at me! I just shot off another one!”

And the rest of the world worries about what he might do next.

How did we get to this point?

A Boise man has a unique perspective on that.

Richard Hart, a retired Boise State University dean of education, is one of a few people still living who were at the peace talks that led to the Korean armistice agreement. The armistice ended hostilities in the Korean War. It didn’t officially end the war, however, leading to the most heavily militarized border in the world between the two Koreas and setting the stage for what’s happening in North Korea now.

That was in 1953. Hart was a 23-year-old U.S. Army corporal.

How did a corporal with two stripes on his sleeve happen to be a witness to history at a table lined with generals and other senior officials?

It started with a high school class he took in his home town of Cozad, Neb.

“I was the only boy in the shorthand class,” he said. “Cozad was a small town, about 3,000 people. It still is. There weren’t a lot of electives. The principal convinced me that taking shorthand would be useful to take notes in college, and there wasn’t much else, so I took shorthand.”

A decision that changed his life.

“When I was inducted into the army, they said that anyone who had taken shorthand should take a step forward. I’d been warned not to volunteer for anything, but I stepped forward anyway. They wrote down my name, told me I was a stenographer and I was off to steno school.”

A job description rarely heard in the digital age, stenographers were people who specialized in taking dictation by shorthand. Shorthand, for readers unfamiliar with it, was a way to write rapidly, using strokes, symbols or abbreviations for letters, words or phrases. After completing the army’s stenographer school, Hart was sent to Japan and then to Panmunjom, the North Korean village where the peace talks were held.

“I was thunderstruck when they told me I’d be taking notes for the talks and that I’d be working with generals. I’d only seen a general from far away.”

A difficult opponent

Panmunjom, he said, was two crude buildings and a smattering of tents. From the beginning, it was clear that negotiations with the North Koreans would be difficult, at times to the point of being comical. Then as now, they were determined to talk tough and look superior in the eyes of the rest of the world.

“They were intransigent and they haggled over everything,” Hart said. “… When Adm. Turner Joy (the senior United Nations delegate to the negotiations) put a small U.N. flag on the table, the North Koreans immediately adjourned. When they came back, they had a North Korean flag that was slightly taller than the U.N. flag and they put that on the table.

“The next day, one of our guys took in a flag slightly taller than theirs. This went on till the flags were huge. Finally Adm. Turner Joy brought back the little U.N. flag. Then they brought their little flag back, but they made sure it was still taller than ours. It was all about saving face for them.”

North Korea remained in character during the 1980s, when it waged a “flagpole war” with South Korea. Its resulting 525-foot flagpole (flying a 595-pound flag) was then the tallest in the world.

One of the pictures Hart took during the peace talks was of a North Korean man in a dark blue military uniform.

“This was a funny little guy,” he said. “When the North Koreans realized that we had an admiral at the negotiations, they had to have one, too.”

North Korea barely had a navy then. Whether the man in the “admiral’s” uniform was a real admiral or pretending to be one is, at this point, anyone’s guess.

“If he was an admiral, he didn’t have much to command,” Hart said, laughing.

The negotiations dragged on for years, with North Korea not willing to budge on the repatriation of prisoners of war being held in South Korea.

“It was finally agreed that if they didn’t want to go back to North Korea as prisoners they wouldn’t have to,” he said. “The North Koreans thought there would only be a handful who didn’t want to go back. There were over 100,000.”

Who could blame them? The difference between the two Koreas today couldn’t be more obvious.

“South Korea is booming and successful, and North Korea is still a Third World nation,” he said. “Its economy is all aimed at its military.”

The military — and nuclear threat — continue to grow while starving North Koreans eat grass.

And Kim Bad Haircut gets chubbier and, arguably, crazier.

“If we could only figure out a way to establish peace with it looking like he won in the eyes of the world, it would all be over. But he’s intransigent, just like his grandfather was at the talks I attended. He has to win in his own mind. I just hope and pray that somebody will come up with a solution that will satisfy his ego. Only then will we be able to relax.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Got an idea for a column subject? Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.