[OUTLOOK]Why Fixate on Seeing Kim Jong-il Here?

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[OUTLOOK]Why Fixate on Seeing Kim Jong-il Here?

Ever since his days in the opposition - and for the 45 years of his career - President Kim Dae-jung has emphasized the necessity of sticking to a principle and employing flexible strategies to accomplish political goals.

But these characteristics seem conspicuously lacking when it comes to President Kim's handling of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's reciprocal visit to Seoul. There is a clear imbalance between goals and methods. Our president has pinned his hopes on a visit to Seoul before the end of the year. He has made a dash to achieve the goal, but his moves betray a lack of strategic flexibility. This has caused government responses to other issues to become skewed and rigid.

The government made a hurried and quite dumbfounding decision regarding the Liberation Day celebrations held in Pyongyang; that had to do with the government's impatience to try to induce the visit. The conflicting views within the ruling party over the decision to permit South Koreans to visit Pyongyang and the consequent wayward, ill-disciplined actions taken by some members of the party, demonstrate the extent of the desperate obsession of certain members of the ruling party not to disturb the North.

The figure of the North Korean leader has haunted all the major issues South Koreans have been grappling with in the recent past: the media tax probe (and the right of the press to be critical of government policy); the sluggish economy (and whether South Koreans feel rich enough to financially support the North); debates over the reunification constitution and the visit itself have exhausted our society. The elusive specter of the visit stands at the center of all these chaotic domestic affairs.

Creaky foreign affairs are afflicted by the same problem. The subtle difference in the standpoints of South Korea and the United States toward North Korean policy centrally hinge on the North Korean leader's visit to Seoul.

In 1998, shortly before he came to power, Mr. Kim visited the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command. He said, "The U.S. troops stationed in Korea protect our mutual interests and contribute to peace and the balance of power in Northeast Asia." He said, "U.S. forces should remain in Korea even after North-South reunification." John Tilelli, then commander-in-chief of the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command, was pleased at Mr. Kim's remarks, our military generals recall. However, Seoul's failure to defend the presence of U.S. forces in Korea after Kim Jong-il's renewed calls for them to leave have soured Washington, which suspects it of trying to appease the North.

The South Korea's siding with China over the distorted Japanese history textbook stirred up more speculation. Japan argues that Seoul decided to cooperate with Pyongyang and Beijing to put pressure on Tokyo merely to expedite the visit here by Kim Jong-il.

When the United States and Japan's attitudes toward Seoul get a little frosty, we have seen again and again that this deeply affects domestic conditions and policy at home. The Park Chung Hee and Kim Young-sam administrations suffered in this way; this administration cannot expect to escape it.

Those in charge of North Korea policy hope that Kim Jong-il's visit to Seoul will resolve all the confusion and break the deadlock. Yet, under current circumstances, the visit will simply aggravate the ideological conflict and antagonism in our society.

On the issue of reunification, President Kim has always said that the true measure by which he will be judged is the long-term view of history - not the personal losses and triumphs of day-to-day politics. He has said he would rather benefit the nation in the long term than gain political points in the short term. Now is time to take a new look at the visit, which has become a hindrance to other domestic affairs.

President Kim should seek a new harmony in goals and methods. He should renew his strategic flexibility and stand back from the issue. Pyongyang desperately needs to visit Seoul to find a salve for its economic catastrophe and to improve relations with the United States. With inter-Korean relations at an impasse, carefully observing Pyongyang's moves is the best strategy. If we lean back, the North will bend forward.


The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Bo-gyoon

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