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[OUTLOOK]Dealing with the U.S. and reality

Apr 09,2003
Our government has started its diplomacy on North Korea’s nuclear program and on our economy in earnest. The primary target is the United States.
The decision to dispatch troops to Iraq was made with the United States in mind; the government officials being deployed to the front lines of diplomacy with the United States are not only those concerned with national security but with the economy as well. This is because of the impact that national security has on the economy. The more unstable the country becomes because of North Korea’s nuclear program, the bigger the shock to the economy will be.
And the United States is closely linked to both our economy and our national security. Those in the government who had talked defiantly about the United States during the presidential election campaign and before the inauguration seem to have changed their tune; there is no more time for bravado.
The president and his reformists have ended their cries for a more balanced relationship with the United States. Is this a true change of heart or a strategic withdrawal? Either way, the first person to have adapted nimbly to reality is the president himself. Some of his staff, reportedly, are disappointed in his change of direction.
Former President Kim Dae-jung was a leader who knew the United States well. He advocated the “sunshine policy” of embracing North Korea but he was pliable in the face of the United States. That was because he knew the extent of American power.
Some of Mr. Kim’s “sunshine policy” advisers were said to have often felt a sense of betrayal by the president, just as Mr. Roh’s aides do. Mr. Kim would be a persuasive advocate for dealing gently with North Korean interests in front of them, only to turn quiet when the reaction from Washington was not favorable.
This was not because of his personal debt to the U.S. government, which literally saved his life once. Mr. Kim knew all too well that it was in the national interest not to clash with the United States. His was the agony of a leader charged with the fate of his country.
The Roh Moo-hyun government seems to now have realized the connection between national security and the economy and has launched a series of diplomatic moves toward the United States.
It is acting hurriedly out of concern that the situation might get worse. Unfortunately, this has always been the case with our diplomacy. We seem to practice little or no diplomacy most of the time, only to raise a fuss when the situation gets serious.
It is the same with North Korean issues. Not many people had thought that things would go the way we wished from the beginning. It is exactly six months since North Korea’s nuclear program first became a hot issue.
Experts repeatedly warned that North Korea’s nuclear program and the wave of anti-Americanism would cause damage to the economy. But the government consistently replied with vague optimism and scolded the Cassandras for inflaming social tension groundlessly.
It is now a luxury to talk about past mistakes. Now that the government is showing some serious intent, we can hope that it has changed for the better and for the rest of its tenure. It is a comfort to know that while the Korean diplomats now engaging the U.S. government might be short of the will to reform, they have plenty of experience in international dealings.
What should these diplomats tell the United States? Should they proclaim that there is nothing wrong with the fundamentals of the Korean economy? Should they continue to assert that North Korea is changing and that the United States should trust us and follow our lead? Or should they take up the old, familiar tune that the American government does not understand President Roh?
No matter how hard we may try, there does not seem to be any acceptable story to tell.
If we downplay the North’s threat, we will be seen as out of touch with reality. If we emphasize the threat from North Korea, we have to admit that the economy is vulnerable. In order to induce investment, we have to present persuasive solutions to the nuclear threat and anti-American sentiment.
If we ask for a delay in repositioning U.S. troops stationed in Korea, we are forcing American soldiers to be hostage to the North Koreans. We need to explain to the Americans in great detail the changes that have taken place in Korean society, but the Americans are not interested in such long conversations. We should have kept our communications open in our peaceful days.
The United States deserves credit for its role in helping us develop economically and maintain national security. Throw away any ideas of threatening to end the alliance if Washington slaps sanctions on North Korea. The best defense is pointing out that a war would lead to a crumbling of Korea’s democracy and the economic gains we have made over the past decades. We can no longer tell the U.S. government that it does not understand President Roh; instead, we should be telling them that he is now not a candidate but a president and has changed his position. That is something that the Americans will fully understand.
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts in diplomacy. Talk of reform is still a luxury. To deal with the United States, we need hard-headed experience, not reform.

* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Kil Jeong-woo


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