[OUTLOOK]The price of verbal warfare

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[OUTLOOK]The price of verbal warfare

A time of disturbance seems to have come. During the winter, it was so quiet that we could feel comfortable, at least once in a long while. We came to have a bit of hope. But as the saying goes, “As soon as they bloom, flowers begin to fade.”
Boisterous words, none of them any good for the country, are being scattered in disarray. It seems only yesterday that I was carefully asking myself whether I had any ancestors who had collaborated with the Japanese. Now I am having to ask myself whether or not I am pro-American. And again it is because of the president’s remarks.
How good it would have been if the president had used his words to calm people, like a Buddhist does when preaching. But just as he did last year, he sends our thoughts in every direction, reawakening the hostility it had been so hard to ease.
Sending forth a barrage of unnecessary remarks has been a unique tactic of this administration. In the sense that these remarks have nothing to do with solutions to problems, what we are really talking about is a war of words.
If the president used gentle words, leading to an expansion of discourse, there would be nothing to complain about. But the president’s war of words is a war of slander, in which each party’s emotions are stirred up and there is irritation on all sides. Or at best, it is a war of attrition, in which real problems are patched up with excuses.
Was the controversy over whether the economy was “in a trough” or “fully recovered” of any use whatsoever to ordinary people trying to earn a living? Did the crisis over the National Security Law, which put the political system in turmoil for the second half of last year, contribute in any way to Korea’s political development?
Will the bloody atmosphere now prevalent in the diplomatic community ―in which, it seems, a diplomat has to forswear pro-American sympathies just to stay in his job ―help Korea become a “balancer” in the Northeast Asian power structure? My judgment is that this particular war of words in the diplomatic world ―the president’s war, really, since he triggered it personally ―has little to do with the crucial issue of the transformed international situation we face in the 21st century.
As is widely known, the first principle by which the United States has judged other countries since September 11, 2001, has not been human rights, past friendships or economic relationships. It is whether a country has developed weapons of mass destruction, and if so, whether the United States can control it.
Faced with this clear and simple strategy on the part of the world’s dominant power, Korea has one very stark choice. If Korea agrees to the United States’ strategy of control, it is an ally. If Korea questions the strategy, it is an enemy.
Japan went along with U.S. policy 100 percent. China challenged it. We know what became of North Korea: it has been deemed part of an “axis of evil.” Now, with a concerned expression on its face, the United States has asked South Korea, “What about you?”
Seoul’s reply was ambiguous: “Well, let me see. We value the South Korea-United States alliance, but there is also something called self-reliance.” How can the United States be expected to interpret this? Considering the tension over the North Korean nuclear issue, it would be curious indeed if U.S. hard-liners did not lose their tempers to hear the president’s words of self-esteem, or to receive the news that South Korea’s National Security Council had vetoed a plan for joint U.S.-South Korean military intervention in the event of a regime collapse in Pyongyang.
But the president’s recent war of words conceals a certain hostility to logic ― a mindset in which people are labeled “pro-American” if they think the government should consider Washington’s reaction, and “anti-American” if they think it’s nothing to worry about. At a moment when North Korea is strongly suspected of engaging in full-scale plutonium extraction, having suspended operations at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, should we be wasting time on these pointless excuses, slander and self-criticism?
What is clear is that the distinction between “pro-American” and “anti-American” is useless in the face of the U.S. global restructuring strategy. The first principle of “self-reliant diplomacy” should be to accept the stark reality that the United States has military operational command in South Korea, and is the state that will coordinate conflicting interests among the powers surrounding the peninsula.
The term “self-reliance” may instill pride in the Korean people, but in translation, it has some worrisome connotations. To us, it may simply sound like a declaration of independence, a serving of notice that we will do what we deem best for ourselves. Who could oppose an assertion of sovereignty? But we should be careful that “self-reliance” is not misinterpreted as referring to North Korea’s philosophy of juche, which also means self-reliance and sovereignty. We do not want the United States misreading the situation as meaning that it needs to end the alliance. That might leave the president feeling proud of himself for having “said what needed saying,” but the burden of paying for a suddenly astronomical defense budget will be shared by all of us.
Diplomats who are good at what they do can secure practical advantages that don’t come with a price tag. But our diplomatic team doesn’t think twice about risking trillions of won for the sake of saving face. Having characteristically divided the public into camps on the “pro-American” issue, they are helpless to come up with real solutions to the diplomatic problems they create. Talk of reform may be acceptable in domestic problems, but in international diplomacy, “reform” is another world for “revolt.” Right now, enthusiastic amateurs who don’t know that are shaking the diplomatic community, while veterans who know better are shaking their heads and sighing.

* The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Song Ho-keun
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