[OUTLOOK]Reflecting on the troops decisionAfter a game of baduk, or go, many players are not content just to know who won the game and who lost. They conduct a lengthy review of the match; like those postmortems, this column is an attempt to analyze the process by which the Korean government decided to dispatch noncombatant troops to Iraq, a measure proposed by the administration and approved by the National Assembly. The approval in the Assembly will put a halt to the controversy over the troop contribution for the time being, but the process was interesting for several reasons.
On March 25, President Roh Moo-hyun said at a meeting with floor leaders of the ruling and opposition political parties that he had decided to dispatch troops for the sake of “the national interest.” Thereafter, proponents seized on “national interest” as the key words in the justification for sending troops. Those who opposed the dispatch were regarded as persons who did not know what was in the national interest or as radicals trying to do harm to the national interest. But that is just not true.
The opponents also were advocating what they saw as Korea’s national interests, but their definition differed from the president’s. That is the first issue to address. Is our national interest doing justice by refusing to support a war without a cause? A sense of justice is important as a value that reflects a love of humanity, but perhaps our national interests should not be expressed in such lofty or soft sentiments. Is our national interest reconfirming the alli-ance with the United States? Perhaps that is a better and more practical approach.
On March 26, President Roh said at the commencement ceremony of the Korea Military Academy that the decision to send troops was an expression of support for the U.S. stance and was based on a “strategic judgment” to keep the peace on the Korean Peninsula. Participation in the war in Iraq was adopted as a realistic option, not a justification. That logic ― preventing a war here ― may invite misunderstandings. Anti-war demonstrators also want to forestall a war here. We should have given more thought to whether the U.S. troop request should have been accepted or rejected and to the consequences of either choice.
For instance, I would ask those who accept the troop dispatch whether the dispatch would change any U.S. plan to attack North Korea eventually if it had already decided to do so. Those who reject the dispatch could be asked whether Koreans, both in the North and South, are ready to risk their lives in a devastating war that could break out on the peninsula. Oil vs. nuclear weapons, Saddam Hussein vs. Kim Jong-il, Islam vs. communism ― which is the more vicious element of the axis of evil? Perhaps only U.S. President George W. Bush knows the answer.
But here, both sides have been debating slogans, not the merits of the national interest and a strategy to advance it. Still, the whole uproar was very useful. The press called it “disruption of public opinion” and politicians branded it “a great upheaval,” but I see it as practical training for a pluralistic society. How many times had we yearned for “disruptions of public opinion” and dreamed of “a great upheaval” under the military regimes in which the president thundered and others followed?
When the National Human Rights Commission issued an anti-war statement, comments were heard that “the commission was established to do such a thing.” Though it seems strange that a government agency would criticize administration policy, such dissident voices should be heard inside and outside the government.
But nobody other than the president seemed to have the courage to defend the commission. In that, we can see the limits and paradoxes of the “participatory government.” Shouldn’t the president have refrained from commenting or been the last to comment? Is that not the way to make the government truly participatory?
Elementary students in Mr. Bush’s home town staged an anti-war protest, but that was not regarded as a “disruption of public opinion.” U.S. military commanders criticized their leadership’s war plan and Iraq’s broadcasts quote U.S. war correspondents reporting on U.S. battlefield losses. But that is not considered “a great upheaval.”
Of course, Korea is not the United States and there is no Canada along our northern border. Perhaps the candlelight vigils by ordinary citizens that resulted in an apology from President Bush show the significant changes in Korean society.
It is natural for citizens to hold legislators accountable for acting against their wishes. One brave lawmaker said he was willing to be judged by the electorate for his pro-dispatch vote at the next general election, and deserves applause for doing so. U.S. businessmen put blunt pressure on the Korean government to send troops by warning of problems with their investments here. So it is somewhat understandable that college student councils voted to boycott classes and labor unions threatened general strikes. Radical actions should be avoided, though; there should be no urging of soldiers to defy their orders or illegal campaigns to ask people to vote against particular Assembly candidates.
Still, this disruption and commotion is a tuition fee we are paying to develop into an advanced society.
* The writer is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Joseph W. Chung