[GLOBAL EYE]We need Syngman Rhee

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[GLOBAL EYE]We need Syngman Rhee

President Roh Moo-hyun’s diplomacy with the United States is in contrast to that of Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea. Mr. Rhee was a professional while Mr. Roh is an amateur in diplomacy. Therefore, a direct comparison of the two men is unreasonable. But both have in common that they speak what is on their mind to the United States. Mr. Rhee clung to the military alliance with the United States as a lifeline that guaranteed the survival and security of the Republic of Korea. Mr. Roh is wrestling with the realignment of the creaking 50-year-old military alliance.
Ten days ago, Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, warned, “The relationship between South Korea and the United States is like a wooden battleship, still afloat but about to sink if it is not repaired quickly.” The crisis in the South Korea-U.S. alliance is a crisis of the Republic of Korea. Both men were in a critical situation, and seem to employ brinkmanship tactics in a similar way.
Syngman Rhee kept our national status by contending openly what should be contended and discussing thoroughly what was right and wrong with the United States. He had to listen to all kinds of abusive language because he directly opposed the U.S. president or secretary of state and despised and scolded U.S. authorities in Seoul. During a visit to Washington, he criticized the U.S. administration in an impromptu speech at the airport and did not hesitate to appeal directly to the U.S. Congress and the American people.
His abrupt manner came from his confidence in knowing better than anyone the nature of Washington politics and diplomacy and the perception of the grim reality that Korea’s survival and security, whether he liked it not, relied on the will and policy of the United States. He said to Vice President Richard Nixon, “The moment the United States firmly believes that it controls Syngman Rhee at its pleasure, you will lose the most effective means of negotiation.” He also confided, “My words regarding Korea’s single-handed acts are all intended to help the United States.”
It is hard to find a common thread in a series of abrupt remarks by President Roh. When he was a presidential candidate, he seemed to want to confront the United States, but in his first visit to the United States, honey seemed to drip from his mouth as he talked about probably being in a concentration camp had the U.S.-Korea alliance not existed. With his decision to dispatch troops to Iraq, he seemed to strike a policy of cooperation between South Korea and the United States. But then, with his remarks about the North Korean nuclear problem in Los Angeles, he turned around again to take a hard-line stance toward the United States. After talking about playing the role of a mediator between North Korea and the United States, he advocated a constructive role within the framework of the six-way talks, and this time argued for an independent role while siding with North Korea. It is confusing to listen to him.
If he wants to speak what is on his mind to the United States, he should do so openly and consistently. His remarks about North Korean nuclear arms in Los Angeles agitated Korea domestically, and the U.S. media gave it little attention. The Department of State’s roundabout response that “discussion is needed” was also an answer to questions by the Korean media. After the summit talks, President George W. Bush sent a clear message that five countries should ask North Korea to scrap nuclear weapons in a unified voice. Seeing such a message, there seems little room for an independent Korean role. This is even more so, considering the words of a U.S. government official, speaking without attribution, that in a meeting with Mr. Bush, “no leader asked for more flexibility in his dialogue with North Korea.” That is hardly an expression that the United States understands South Korea’s sensitivity to the North Korean nuclear problem and approves a leading role for South Korea.
It is a basic tenet of diplomacy to open the back door silently when you close the front door. If South Korea talks overtly in favor of North Korea, it will have less room to play a leading role. Pyeongyang’s cooperation with Seoul is a variable, and we risk being excluded from or isolated in the six-way talks. There has seldom been any leader who was as indignant as Mr. Rhee at being betrayed by the United States. But a leader should know when the country’s destiny and important national interests are at stake. I miss the insight and acute discernment of the strategist Mr. Rhee who made use of the United States half a century ago.

* The writer is the editor in chief of the monthly publication NEXT. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Byun Sang-keun
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