A Bitter Pill to Swallow -int'l Opinion from 1994

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A Bitter Pill to Swallow -int'l Opinion from 1994

"The two Koreas are incapable of meeting to negotiate independently. It seems our intervention is necessary to prevent any mishaps from occurring."

Through its espionage network in Tokyo, the Korean government learned that the foreign ministers of Japan and the United States had made the statement regarding the two Koreas in the spring of 1994, a time when the entire nation was in an uproar over North Korea's suspected nuclear development program. The statement was a condemnation of the two Koreas.

At the time, high-level inter-Korean talks had taken place after numerous difficulties, with the United States leading the negotiations. During the talks, one North Korean delegate made a highly controversial statement, stating that "Seoul will turn into an inferno of fire in the event of a war," which subsequently led to public outrage and political repercussions in the South. The initial fury of Korea's embarrassed ranking officials slowly turned into bitterness.

Now years after, the two Koreas have emerged from a successful Pyongyang summit, arranged entirely on the initiative of the two countries. What are the feelings of American and Japanese officials as they watch the unexpected events unfolding on the Korean peninsula? Their feelings appear to have changed to doubts and concerns over whether they would be able to adapt to the rapidly changing political situation on the Korean peninsula. They are now watching carefully to see if the "two Koreas will join forces to make unexpected moves."

The significance of inter-Korean summit talks revolves around the fact that an opportunity was created for the two Koreas, previously mere "pawns" in a game of power among larger powers, to shape their future. Although it remains to be seen, the final outcome of the summit will depend on the capability of both the South and the North to make full use of the given opportunity.

Judging from the confusion that has reigned in South Korean society for the past month or so, it doesn't appear likely that inter-Korean relations will proceed smoothly with the cheering and blessings of neighboring countries.

Looking at the excitement currently gripping South Koreans, this writer is reminded of the comments made by a Korean-Chinese intellectual in Yanbian relating to the national characteristics of the two Koreas. "It is astonishing how the people of two Koreas are so alike. They will be able to form a united front when the time comes," he said. "They are skilled at exaggerating any small incident, and they have a fiery temper that can quickly perform a sharp about-face. The two Koreas are also alike in that they can withstand their own poverty, but not others’ fortunes." Such were the ironic and bitter-to-swallow observations by an ethnic Korean-Chinese of his former compatriots, who are now called upon to adapt to a changed environment.

In a nutshell, the Korean peninsula will forever remain at the outskirts of the surrounding great powers--if the two Koreas fail to change their attitudes in fundamental ways. This means that no one can confidently state that the two Koreas are capable of objectively and rationally paving their own future.

Let's take the example of the four-way talks, which we had prided ourselves on as a diplomatic coup. Although the inter-Korean summit talks took a lot of steam out of this supposedly landmark event, the four-way talks had been actually nothing but the result of the United States' firm resolve to begin the talks, based on the belief that it cannot relegate the great task of establishing peace and stability on the Korean peninsula to the two Koreas.

Ultimately, one inter-Korean summit talk did not bring great changes to the strategic relationships surrounding the Korean peninsula. The current perception of other countries is that the two Koreas, after much bickering, have decided to "sleep with the enemy." Many countries believe that the two nations are still on precariously thin ice.

The prevailing perception in Tokyo that South Korea played into the hands of Kim Jong-il is also quite disparaging. While this can be shrugged off as an indication of Japan's frustration for having failed to keep up with the changes on the Korean peninsula, its condescending nature leaves a bitter aftertaste.

In any event, blazing passion and emotional tears are expected to hold sway over the Korean peninsula for some time to come. Koreans will continue to come under the influence of other nations’ sugarcoated expectations.

At the core of the challenge we are to face (apart from North Korea itself), however, is whether or not our system will be able to move from the perimeter to the center of international relations.

Whether we like it or not, it was of our own volition that we chose to become a key interest of the great powers.





by Kil Chong-woo

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