[OUTLOOK]Why Mr. Roh needs enemiesConfident countries and leaders don’t need foreign enemies. The Roh administration hasn’t been able to do without them since it came into office.
With his recent suggestion that Tokyo resume paying Koreans for losses suffered during the 35 years the Japanese ruled the peninsula, President Roh Moo-hyun used a patent appeal to nationalism in targeting Japan. Responding, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan hit a nerve when he observed that Mr. Roh had brought up the subject of new compensation to turn public attention outward and away from the president’s own struggles at home. Mr. Koizumi expressed confidence that Tokyo and Seoul had settled the issue 40 years ago with a treaty.
Appeals to nationalism ― through rhetoric or even war ― can shore up the power of a weak leader. During his first nine months in office, U.S. President George W. Bush ran an aimless administration. It was Osama bin Laden who turned Mr. Bush into a potent leader, with a just cause and debatable policies. Saddam Hussein recklessly attacked Iran and Kuwait to maintain his grip. Kim Jong-il threatens the world with nuclear arms because without external enemies, his regime would implode.
In South Korea, the flare-up over the Tokto islands has provided the Roh administration with its newest, best enemy and put Japan firmly in Seoul’s nationalistic sights.
When Japanese rightists made a symbolic claim to Tokto this month, it gave Mr. Roh’s National Security Council a chance to play to Koreans’ sense of inferiority, now much in evidence. At the height of this month’s frenzy of Japan-bashing, two people cut off a finger each, promising to send the morsels to Mr. Koizumi. Another man doused himself with paint thinner and jumped into a flaming Japanese flag. That raised the bar for future candlelight demonstrations.
This is not to denigrate the idea that Koreans may harbor honest and deep resentment against Japan. It’s just that there ought to be more honorable or dignified ways of expressing it. The outrages Japan committed against “comfort women” make a better issue than a bunch of rocks inhabited by sea gulls.
What is strange is to think that just eight months ago, Mr. Roh and Mr. Koizumi were sipping tall, cold drinks together, strolling the beach on Jeju in leisure suits like old school pals. But Japan is just the latest in the Roh team’s steady search for someone to blame. It works wonders.
The president’s stunning election victory, which no one expected, owed a good deal to anti-Americanism. The United States became an easy target because of the tragedy of a road accident when a U.S. Army vehicle struck and killed two Korean school girls. The Yongsan Garrison has also been an irritant, as is the drawn-out and still unresolved decision about where to build a new U.S. Embassy. Many of Mr. Roh’s supporters also cast blame on Washington for being a stubborn ally in not easing its stance toward North Korea ― whether on the nuclear arms question or on human rights. Still, as the United States has shifted in and out of focus as a target of Korean nationalism, fresh enemies could be found to help out.
Well, how about the Chinese? That started last year with a bewildering argument over which country “owned” the history of an ancient Northeast Asian kingdom named Goguryeo. Immense amounts of ink were spilled in Korea about predatory Chinese inveigling to annex something, somehow.
That spat seemed in many ways too abstract. Beijing soon came in for another broadside from Seoul for its handling of North Korean defectors. Korean officials took the view that China ought to be actively aiding a mass migration out of North Korea. Topping the government, opposition lawmakers invaded Beijing in a publicity stunt over the issue.
The Chinese said they were dealing with desperate economic refugees whose numbers threatened to destabilize the Chinese-North Korean border. Beijing was acting like Washington, which has tried to stop a tide of Mexicans and others from crossing into the United States. The Foreign Ministry in Seoul sought headlines over the dispute by calling in the Chinese ambassador.
Beyond seeing China as a political bogeyman, Korea fears being absorbed into Beijing’s greater sphere of economic influence. In other words, when China starts building cars, ships and maybe even high-tech gadgets more cheaply, where will that leave Korea?
Instead of looking for smart ways to position the country, it is clear that the Roh administration’s tactic is to haplessly pick on others as cover for its fumbles, its lack of strategy and a sense that it isn’t taken seriously.
With the Korean government sticking a fork in the sides of the United States, China and Japan, you could ask who the Roh team might regard as its “main friend” these days. Perhaps North Korea now fills that role. No one in the administration ― certainly not National Security Council chief Chung Dong-young ― has anything negative to say publicly about that wickedly run place.
* The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Charles D. Sherman