[VIEWPOINT]The danger in straddling issuesPark Geun-hye, chairwoman of the Grand National Party, has repeatedly asked President Roh Moo-hyun to identify the ideals that his government seeks to pursue.
Through his personal secretary, Mr. Roh replied: “The ideals upheld by the Constitution are the ideals of President Roh.” This is, of course, not what Ms. Park wanted to hear. As far as the ideals of the Constitution are concerned, there can hardly be differences of opinion between the ruling and opposition parties. They both uphold the ideals of free democracy and a market economy.
Her question appears more related to ongoing controversies over the president’s major policies and the government’s move to push investigations into past incidents, using the Third Commission on Suspicious Deaths and a commission to look into pro-Japanese activities of Koreans during the Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945. She also seems to be motivated by Mr. Roh’s order to investigate who intentionally omitted North Korea’s message from the report during the naval clash in the Yellow Sea.
In the past, various questions were raised over Mr. Roh’s major policies. The focus was, all in all, whether the government put too much emphasis on North Korea policy at the sacrifice of the Korea-U.S. alliance, and whether it is too labor friendly rather than business friendly. Experts, the press and the opposition have criticized the government for putting too much weight on a pro-North Korea policy and being too biased in favor of labor.
On the other hand, young liberals welcomed Mr. Roh’s policies because they think they are more pro-North Korean and anti-American than those of previous governments. On the economy, they think that the present government is more pro-labor and anti-business than its predecessors.
The above observations sound reasonable. But the Blue House and Uri Party are reluctant to accept the view. They reject the theory that their policy favors North Korea more than previous governments’ and criticize conservatives’ attempts to paint them in red, saying they are akin to tactics used by the late U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Cold War. They also deny their economic policies are decidedly pro-labor.
Why do they deny being pro-North Korean and labor friendly? Straddling issues is a tendency common among politicians. The Blue House and Uri Party know that the number of liberals here is rapidly increasing, but there are still a large number of conservatives. So, they prefer to sit on the fence, at least for the time being.
In the Yellow Sea incident, the Blue House considered the omission of a North Korean radio response from a report as a challenge to its pro-North Korea policy by military generals. At one stage, the Blue House seemed determined to wipe out top-level officers who challenged its North Korea policy, but later it changed direction.
The Blue House was displeased because the initial press report was focused on the North’s negligence in answering radio calls. The highly praised achievement of the first inter-Korean military talks ― a hot line between the militaries of the North and the South ― appeared to have been a futile endeavor. Fortunately, from a non-military source, a report that the North responded to the South’s calls arrived. What the Blue House worried about was confirmed finally: Field commanders disregarded the North Korean message and sent a false report to superiors.
The Blue House had ample reason to be upset. Mr. Roh ordered an inquiry to find out who omitted the North Korean message from the report. It was revealed that the operations commander of the Navy intentionally omitted it from the report. It was also confirmed that the chief intelligence director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff leaked the communications log between the two navies to the press, revealing the critical facts that the North cheated by saying its patrol boat was a Chinese fishing boat and about the time it sent the message.
The Blue House was right. The military, especially generals brought up under authoritarian governments, have tried to harm President Roh’s softer policy toward Pyeongyang. So they deserve punishment.
Still, despite the defense minister’s recommendation that the generals be sternly punished, the Blue House sought only light warnings to a few working-level officers.
Why did it change course when the proof of an intentional omission and leaks of information harmful to inter-Korean military talks came out? Didn’t it show determination to root out impure elements, doing harm to the pro-North Korea policy, from the military rank and file?
The military after all is not a machine made for reconciliation. It is not born to perform the dual duties of fighting on one side and negotiating on the other. Maybe the Blue House realized the nature and the limit of the military belatedly, and decided to conclude the matter harmoniously.
There is another possibility. It is known that the whiz kids under the blue roof tiles are good at Internet opinion polls. They may have belatedly found in cyberspace huge waves of opposition that could engulf their offices.
By the time the ministry’s investigation was completed, people started to criticize the Blue House for aiming to punish the nation’s soldiers, who defended the Northern Limit Line, instead of the North’s Navy that crossed the line and tried to confuse our Navy with false messages.
President Roh realized that the military couldn’t be persuaded to be negotiators and found that the people care more about national security than reconciliation with the North.
There was no other way but for the president to straddle again. What is important, however, is that the president can’t restore the confidence of the military by straddling.
* The writer is the opinion page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo
More in Columns
A cautionary tale
A government in disarray
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?