[OUTLOOK]Speak up, but speak carefully

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[OUTLOOK]Speak up, but speak carefully

There are people who say that we can now say what we have to say to the United States, unlike in the past. But the truth is, we did say what we had to say in the past. Syngman Rhee was known for saying things that the United States didn’t want to hear. President Park Chung Hee publicly disagreed with U.S. President Jimmy Carter on human rights and the presence of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula. President Park expressed his opinions in such an adamant way that it angered President Carter greatly. It is not a new phenomenon that we are saying what we have to say to the United States.
The problem is not whether we speak or not but what and how we speak ― and the results of what we say. For example, President Roh Moo-hyun’s speech in Los Angeles was praised by some for having said what needed to be said. Others criticized it for having said things that should not have been said. There are those who worry that the president’s speech would disturb Korea-U.S. relations because it expressed different thoughts than those of the U.S. government. But in some cases, stating what is different from the thinking of Washington can bring better results. The problem is what was said.
The main reason President Roh’s speech came as such a shock to many was that he said he could stand in North Korea’s shoes and see the world through North Korea’s eyes and understand North Korea’s position. If it were not the president speaking but a civic expert, imagining oneself in North Korea’s position could be a creative and effective way to try to understand it better.
But for the president of South Korea to personally stand in North Korea’s shoes is too risky. Moreover, it could have serious consequences should it mean that the president sympathizes with claims made by the North Koreans.
President Roh acknowledged that there was reason behind North Korea’s assertion that its nuclear program and missiles were “a measure of deterrence to protect [itself].” But in order for North Korea’s nuclear weapons to be a true measure of deterrence, North Korea needs to have the capability for a second strike after it absorbs a retaliatory nuclear attack. That would be impossible. North Korea’s claim that its nuclear weapons are a measure of deterrence simply does not make sense.
Also, President Roh noted that North Korea knew very well that it could not engage in any hostile activity with its nuclear weapons. In fact, North Korea would find its nuclear weapons much more useful for aggressive purposes than for defense. It is this aggressive characteristic of nuclear weapons that makes Pyeongyang’s nuclear program so threatening to us.
President Roh then predicted confidently that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons once its security was guaranteed and once it was given hope that its reforms and opening of the country would succeed. President Roh then advised the United States to trust North Korea. “Without trust, there can be no conversation,” he said. Of course, in our everyday lives, we often talk to people that we don’t yet trust, and we look to the results of the conversation to decide whether we can indeed trust the person or not.
President Roh emphasized that conversation was the only way to solve the problem and that the United States should not put pressure or use military threats on North Korea. Of course, the U.S. government’s dilemma is that if it excluded all threatening elements against North Korea, it would lose any ability to persuade or negotiate. Threats and negotiations are not alternatives to each other. Threats are rather a necessary element for the success of negotiations.
In the end, the president’s speech in Los Angeles was not a problem because he said what he had to say ― it was a problem because of what he said. It is good to say what one must say, but not when what one says is wrong. Unfortunately, this seemed to be the case with the speech in Los Angeles.
In order to prove that President Roh’s views on North Korea are not just empty illusions, Pyeongyang must take a step towards abandoning its nuclear program. If North Korea refuses to give up, the maker of the speech in Los Angeles will find himself considerably embarrassed.

* The writer, a former ambassador to the United States, is a professor emeritus at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Kim Kyung-won
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