[GLOBAL EYE]The new ambassador’s chanceGaeseong kitchen pots, the first product manufactured at the inter-Korean industrial complex in the North, sold out in just two days when they were introduced in Seoul last week. These pots are a symbol of inter-Korean economic cooperation. Behind the delay of the operation of Gaeseong Industrial Complex, which could have been completed at least two or three years ago, is the North Korean nuclear issue. The North may have been somewhat disgruntled by the delay, but Pyeongyang was largely responsible for it.
Four years have passed between Seoul and Pyeongyang’s agreement to launch the Gaeseong project and the actual startup of manufacturing. Now that production has begun, it should never stop. Even the slightest suspension of production would directly affect the interests of the participating small and mid-sized companies, and resuming the work would become more complicated.
Therefore, the operation of the Gaeseong complex already has significance beyond its symbolic meaning. The slightest problem could be fatal to inter-Korean relations. If the South is to approach the North tactically, on the supposition that the regime will not collapse, economic cooperation must go smoothly. Pyeongyang must realize that economic cooperation differs fundamentally from the nuclear issue, on which it tried to exclude Seoul as much as possible and deal with the international community directly.
But the bigger problem is that inter-Korean economic cooperation will be influenced one way or another by opinions both inside and outside Washington, on issues ranging from North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction to its human rights conditions. Fortunately, U.S. Ambassador to Korea Christopher Hill had a positive evaluation of the Gaeseong project in his recent speech in Washington. Ambassador Hill remained theoretical, and the U.S. government has no intention of ruining the inter-Korean exchange at the moment. In short, Washington will determine its position based on the progress of the nuclear issue.
The South’s concern is with narrowing the gap between its methods and approaches and those of Washington, with whom we share the goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and making diplomatic efforts to induce North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. This is the grave duty that falls to the newly named ambassador to the United States, JoongAng Ilbo publisher Hong Seok-hyun. It is not an easy challenge to convince American opinion leaders to concur with the Korean government’s approach to the North. Unless the Americans change their perceptions of the North’s system and its leaders, narrowing that gap will be very difficult.
Unless Americans understand the unique characteristics of North Korea and the special situation South Korea is in ― as the ally of the United States and, as members of the same race as the North, the last hope of the North’s survival ― any effort is bound to be limited. Also, if Washington does not have the political will to accommodate a bolder approach, as Seoul hopes it does, the new ambassador won’t be able to go beyond the wall that his predecessors have faced.
For our hopes for the new ambassador to come true, at least three conditions have to be satisfied. First of all, he should have the absolute trust of the Korean president. As he faces American opinion leaders with different positions, he must be guaranteed enough flexibility to convince them. He might have to make comments seemingly in agreement with Washington’s hardline voices, and he needs to make comments critical to Seoul’s awkward position. In order to accomplish this strategic goal, the ambassador needs the tolerance of the Korean government.
The United States should also add an element of realistic flexibility to its current theoretical approach. Along with a better understanding of the unique characteristics of the region, Washington needs to display the flexibility to give Seoul’s creative plan a chance ― a plan to resolve the nuclear problem which can no longer be postponed. Washington needs to utilize this new ambassador, who has an unconventional background, in an experimental spirit to achieve its strategic goals.
Pyeongyang is no exception here. North Korea needs to consider the appointment of an understanding South Korean ambassador to Washington as an opportunity. The ambassador to Washington is considered more a messenger than a policymaker.
However, for Mr. Hong’s service to become a win-win situation for both Koreas, Pyeongyang must place full trust in South Korea’s new ambassador to Washington.
If the introduction of the Gaeseong kitchen pots in Korea is a preview of the bright future of the Korean Peninsula, let’s hope that the debut of the new ambassador to Washington can be a blockbuster feature presentation.
*The writer is an editorial writer and director of the Research Institute of Unification Culture of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kil Jeong-woo