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[WIDE INTERVIEW]Singapore diplomat puts trust in talk

May 02,2006
Kishore Mahbubani is a former Singaporean diplomat. He served as the president of the UN Security Council and is currently the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He was in Seoul at the invitation of the Korea Foundation.

Q. South Korea’s allies want harsher measures against North Korea but the North remains very sensitive. China is also making inroads into the North’s economy. How will these trends play out? What can South Korea do?
A.The thing that’s unique about the North Korean issue is that there are internal dimensions of the problem and then there are the larger geopolitical dimensions. What is critical in terms of achieving some kind of resolution to the North Korean issue is for there to be what I call a geopolitical alignment of interests. If the U.S.-China relationship goes well then the likelihood of a resolution of the North Korean issue is higher. South Korea should become a larger supporter of the East Asia summit. Regional cooperation will help a lot in making a solution. One important point, by the way, is that it's good for South Korea [if] North Korea [grows] closer to China, because if North Korea follows the Chinese model it will open up its economy and its society.

What about the prospects for reunification in that case?
The prospects for reunification are higher if you can transform North Korean society and lessen the disparity between North and South.

The Dokdo issue has flared up again, and there is still anti-Japanese sentiment in China and Korea. Can these these relationships be fixed or will we just have to wait for the next generation?
I'm also deeply troubled. I think all is not well in Northeast Asia. In fact I always say that one of the great paradoxes of the issue is that all of the impulses for regional cooperation are coming from the poorer, less developed countries of Southeast Asia and that the richer, more developed countries in Northeast Asia are not able to replicate what they have done.
On the Japanese textbook issue, if you have an East Asian summit and every country in the room spoke out and said, “Japan, really, change your textbooks and have the correct history,” that's much more meaningful pressure than if it came from one country bilaterally. So again, with Japan the core issue is strengthening regional cooperation processes.

Japan might say they’re being held to a standard that isn’t applied to other countries. In China there’s whitewashing of history, and in Korea the textbooks are all written by the government, so some might argue that at least in Japan there are different books that can be used.
See, I'm glad you mentioned that because if you get all the leaders in a room, where Korea and China can express their views quite strongly and Japan can respond, then in a group setting they will begin to realize which arguments work and which ones don't. But if you don't have that setting that's very bad, then you have real misunderstanding.
I was at the first APEC leaders’ meeting that took place in Seattle in 1993. I was there with President Clinton and Jiang Zemin, and Clinton was elected on a platform of saying, ‘I will not support the butchers of Beijing,’ and so naturally there’d be awkwardness.
But in the meeting, with the pressure on everybody to cooperate and talk to each other, by the end of the day they were walking hand in hand, President Clinton and Jiang Zemin. So if you create the right kind of leaders' meetings it can make a big difference.
What role will the U.S. play?
The signals the United States sends make a big difference. Even silence from the U.S. sends a very powerful message.

The current administration seems uninterested in creating new international organizations.
Well, it depends. The U.S., I hope, realizes that even the existing organizations like APEC, which started out with a lot of promise and then slowed down in the 1990s, can be revived and strengthened. For example, the U.S. can use APEC to talk simultaneously to China, Japan and Korea because they're all present.

Is there any hope for the six-party talks?
I think we should carry on with the six-party talks. It's better to have them than to not have them. But I think if you look at the track record so far it's not very easy to get results.

You've often said that democracy and capitalism can’t be immediately grafted onto countries that have not gone through a process of economic development, and I know I heard that you were here partly to see why Korea had been able to develop its economy and democracy so quickly.
Korea is a remarkable country and I'm a great admirer of Korea. The development has been quite phenomenal, and it is a genuine miracle what Korea has done. But again, in some ways Korea also proves the case I make that you have to have several decades of economic development and the development of a middle class that creates the kind of social stability that you need for healthy functioning democracy.
One of the biggest gifts that America has given to the world is to create a global order which allows any nation to try as long as they abide by the rules of that global order, and this is why you had for the first time of history the rise of new powers without conflict. Both Japan and Germany were able to play by the rules of the new global order, and America has been very important in creating this global order.

You've mentioned that the “1945 Truman global order” is ending.
I think the 1945 global order is one of the best world orders of all time. But I fear that any global order requires a lot of maintenance to keep going, and sadly no one is maintaining the 1945 order anymore. For example, you watch the current disputes between the United States and the UN. I believe that if the U.S. and UN were at loggerheads both sides would lose. Because the UN is essentially an American creation.

In Incheon and Jeju, Korea is trying to build locations to be the hub of Northeast Asia, similar to Singapore.
Asian history was interrupted by 200 years of Western colonialism, so you had all kinds of Asian countries that are paying more attention to their colonial rulers than to their own neighbors.
Today, I heard from the president of the Korea Foundation that as a child he wasn’t taught much about Japanese or Chinese history because it wasn't taught in Korean schools because of the difficulty Korea had with China and Japan.
But if you want to become a hub you've got to become a hub for your neighbors. To become a hub for your neighbors you’ve got to understand your neighbors. You’ve got to find out what do your neighbors need, what kind of products do they want? Do they want cut flowers delivered on time? Do they want coffee delivered fresh? What do they want? This is what we do as a hub, you know. We try to understand the needs of the region, and service that.


by Ben Applegate


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