[TODAY]China Gaffe Reflects Deeper Problems

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[TODAY]China Gaffe Reflects Deeper Problems

Hic Rhodus, hic saltus!

"Rhodes is here; leap here!"

Aesop's fable "The Braggart" became widely known through Hegel and Marx. There once was an athlete in ancient Greece who liked to brag. After coming back from an overseas trip, he kept bragging about his performance. He said when he was in Rhodes, he jumped like an Olympic athlete. Then a bystander chimed in, saying "If that's true, demonstrate the jump here and now."

For Russians, that athlete could be like Mikhail Gorbachev, who put all his efforts into foreign affairs - and particularly into ending the Cold War - without realizing the Soviet Empire was collapsing from inside.

The criticism lodged against Foreign Minister Han Seung-soo after a Korean citizen was executed in China unbeknownst to the Korean government is the same: Hic Rhodus, hic saltus!

Mr. Han may be enhancing Korea's image abroad by serving as the chairman of the UN General Assembly, but he was away from his office when diplomatically sensitive issues such as strained Korea-Japan relations and the ban on saury fishing grounds in the seas off the Kuril Islands surfaced. While he was in New York and elsewhere, the news was belatedly revealed that a Korean had been executed in China, and President Kim Dae-jung chided China without knowing that Beijing had indeed notified the Korean government of the execution.

Governments, just like individuals, can make mistakes. What is important is to find the cause of the mistake and prevent its recurrence. Public opinion and the government's reaction to the internationally embarrassing incident fail to get at the core issue. Would there be no more diplomatic embarrassments if the foreign minister stays at home in his office, if the ministry improves the way it handles consular work and if it punishes the officials responsible? Is the Foreign Ministry the only government agency that is malfunctioning?

Certainly not. Losing the saury fishing grounds and inserting a clause in a statement after a Korea-Russia summit that provoked the United States are not unrelated to the mess in domestic politics. When our domestic politics is mired in crisis and President Kim Dae-jung becomes more a lame duck day by day, how many government officials have the sense of duty to devote themselves to promoting the public interest?

Around this time last year, I pointed out that President Kim, after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, was more interested in world peace than in domestic problems and called on him to put priority in governing this country. "Hic Rhodus, hic saltus," I demanded.

Nothing has changed. Young persons graduating from college this year are experiencing the worst-ever job shortage. The Blue House and the Millennium Democratic Party's war against the Big Three newspapers compounds the concerns of the public. The political infighting between the governing and opposition parties has reached an apogee, and the situation inside the governing party is like a group duel. On top of all that, corruption allegations continue to swirl around powerful officials.

Punishing the foreign service officers responsible for the embarrassing execution incident is a must. Consular operations should also be improved. However, such measures don't get at the heart of the problem. In an organization that puts an anti-American clause in a Korea-Russia joint declaration, it is difficult to expect that its officials in Shenyang could improve their job performance. Korean diplomacy today reflects the mess in domestic politics.

The incident itself should be settled by punishing those responsible. After that, government agencies dealing with foreign affairs should be restructured to ones that can deal with the agendas of the post-Cold War era and the 21st century. The Foreign Ministry's problem is the problem of the entire government, and the problem of diplomats is a problem of all bureaucrats. Foreign policy is an extension of domestic politics. Only a round wheel turns smoothly, and the wheels of the Korean government look oval at best. Foreign affairs are no exception. Korean consuls stationed in China are also bureaucrats who are sensitive to domestic politics.

Just because Mr. Kim is losing his grip on power, the flow of world politics will not stop and wait for us. Under our system, there will always be lame-duck presidents, although an incumbent with experience and leadership could minimize the phenomenon. The China incident was a result of weakening presidential power, the domestic political crisis and a bureaucratic mind-set. The solution can only be found in stabilizing the country's domestic politics. Unless our diplomacy is based on clearly defined national policies, these incidents will recur.


The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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