[TODAY]U.S. is blocking Mr. Roh’s visionDreams are the mother of reality. Presidents and political leaders are often evaluated on their ability to turn dreams and visions into reality. Five years ago, the newly inaugurated President Kim Dae-jung spoke of a dream in which Koreans would travel the “iron silk road” across the vast Eurasian continent. Unfortunately, President Kim had to leave the Blue House before he could realize that dream, confronted by the reality of North Korea’s nuclear threat and overshadowed by the secret bribes sent to Pyeongyang.
President Roh Moo-hyun has presented the dawn of the Northeast Asia era as a national vision during his presidency. The significance of this vision is great indeed, in that it provides a much-needed focus for a nation ever apprehensive of a nuclear crisis and worn out by tension and conflict among Korea’s classes and generations.
As the president said in his inauguration speech, we are situated at a strategic point where the continental powers of Eurasia meet the Pacific. The 700-million-strong population living within a 750 mile radius of Seoul is greater than that of the United States and the European Union put together. The size of Northeast Asia’s economy is about one-fifth of the entire world economy. Korea’s geographical location has been cause of sorrow for its residents in the past, but now it offers vast opportunities, the president rightly pointed out.
With the warming of ties between Korea and China, the “west coast era” has opened for Koreans. When North Korea and Japan normalize their relationship, the east coast will also see its day. Then the south coast economic zone from Gwangyang Bay to Busan port would be connected to the new western and eastern coastal economic zones and the Korean Peninsula will rise as the financial and distribution hub of Northeast Asia. One would also be able to buy a train ticket to Paris from Busan and arrive at the heartland of Europe via Pyeongyang, China, Mongolia and Russia.
Yet there is a formidable stumbling block to the opening of this Northeast Asian era. That is the reconciliation of North and South Korea, or the solution to the problem called the Korean Peninsula. President Roh first spoke of his concrete ideas on the vision of a Northeast Asian era at an Asia-Europe Press Forum last September. He emphasized then that such an era would be impossible without reconciliation of the two Koreas. At the forum, Mr. Roh said, “The household-making of the North and South must be carried out side by side with the village-making of Northeast Asia.”
Reality, however, does not seem friendly to Mr. Roh’s vision. Tension, high as it is, rises in steep crescendo between Pyeongyang and Washington over the North’s nuclear program. Recently, the U.S. government has shifted its perception of North Korea’s nuclear armament as a reckless negotiating card played at the brink to a real-life threat that must be controlled.
The United States seems ready to prevent the nuclear armament of North Korea using every means available, including an attack on the North Korean nuclear facilities. An attack on North Korea would mean war on the Korean Peninsula, Mr. Roh judges, and that is why he is against any consideration by the U.S. government of using military force against the North. Friction between Seoul and Washington has reached a serious level. A recent tide of anti-Americanism in Korea also seems to have spurred similar sentiments of hostility among Americans. The United States also seems to have a hard time accepting at face value President Roh’s statements that South Korea-U.S. relationship should be maintained at an equal level and that the two can naturally have different views.
President Roh visualized an institution of cooperation for peace, a development bank and an international consortium for the construction of a transcontinental railroad by the Northeast Asian countries. Active participation from China as well as Japan would be needed here. Obviously, such a display of cooperation among Northeast Asian countries without the participation of United States would be received with a mixed reaction of apprehension and expectation from Washington.
U.S. officials are worried that the appearance of a strongly nationalistic president in South Korea who is highly critical of American neoliberal policies would try to rebalance U.S.-South Korea relations and consolidate firmer China-South Korea ties. A few observers have already accused South Korea of abandoning the United States in favor of China as a “protector.” Withdraw U.S. troops from Korea and draw back the American defense line to Japan or somewhere in the Taiwan Straits, they write. That is exactly what Secretary of State Dean Acheson did in the early 1950 when he expressly excluded Korea from the U.S. defense line, a move that many scholars say prompted the North Korean attack that started the Korean War.
The deeper the United States digs in its heels, the harder it will be for any reconciliation between the North and South, let alone any Northeast Asian era. The recovery of South Korea-U.S. relations is urgent. It is regrettable that President Roh’s inauguration speech touched on the issue in four brief sentences.
A plane flight to Washington will have to come before any train rides to Paris.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie