[OUTLOOK]Time for careful diplomacy

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[OUTLOOK]Time for careful diplomacy

A strange undercurrent runs between South Korea and the United States these days. When U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow referred to North Korea as a “criminal regime,” our Foreign Ministry and political parties came forward to express their regrets. The U.S. State Department then said the ambassador’s statement reflected the American government’s stance and ignored the demand to call him back to the United States that some of our politicians had raised.
The two countries have spent more than a half-century as staunch allies. Recently, however, the view each has of the other is shifting. In a report by the Pew Research Center on “What the World Thinks in 2002,” 72 percent of the Korean respondents opposed the war against terror while 73 percent considered that American foreign policy was one-sided and did not consider other nations’ situations. Americans, in turn, seemed to feel betrayed by South Korea when they witnessed anti-American sentiment reflected in candle-light vigils and recent calls for the tearing down of General MacArthur’s statue in Incheon. Their sense of betrayal stems from the fact that many young Americans fought and died in the Korean war and the United States has helped South Korea build its economy.
On Oct. 25, I was invited, along with several U.S. congressmen, to a dinner with U.S. President George W. Bush, to mark the 30th anniversary of a 50-member political support group ― the “Eagles.” At that dinner, President Bush spoke on issues of world peace, terrorism and energy and expressed gratitude to several world leaders. He said he liked Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and wanted to continue to discuss Korean Peninsula affairs with him. But he didn’t express gratitude to South Korea and President Roh Moo-hyun, although we dispatched the third largest troop contingent to Iraq.
Where did the wedge in perceptions between South Korea and the United States begin? With the Cold War over and the South Korean economy and society having made leaps and bounds in development, relations between South and North Korea have improved. That is a positive development in that it has reduced the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula. Yet at the same time, the improved inter-Korean relationship has provided a source of tension between Seoul and Washington. The reason is South Korea’s policy on North Korea, which gives priority to the “same race” factor over the military alliance with the United States.
The most desirable relationship between the two allies is one of cooperation, based on the principles of reciprocal equality. As this is an ideal goal, there is some distance from the reality. The two countries have to work slowly and steadily to lessen that distance. In order to do that, we have to consider several things.
Firstly, we must not forget that the formost variable in international politics is power. Whether we like it or not, the United States is the leading superpower in this era. Heeding the saying, “If one knows your enemy and yourself, one can win a hundred victories,” we need to know the United States better. For example, the thought that the Republican Party is not politically compatible with the South Korean government because of its conservatism stems from ignorance. America is bipartisan in pursuit of its national interests.
Secondly, we need to make sure that our diplomatic system is functioning well. There should not be any confusion between the official and non official lines of diplomacy. The presidential secretariat and the National Security Council are, at most, support agencies, not executive agencies. The president is at the center of diplomacy, and the foreign minister should be the chief executor of the chief executive’s foreign policies without any confusion.
Thirdly, we need to carry out diplomacy in a quiet and sophisticated manner. It is imperative that diplomacy is equipped with the basics of dignity, language and persuasive power. But as of now, South Korean diplomacy is too boisterous. One example is the recent announcement of plans to reduce the number of South Korean forces stationed in Iraq. There has been criticism of why the South Korean government chose the timing of the APEC summit meeting in Busan to make that announcement while heads of state, including the American president, were in town.
South Korean government officials often speak of the need for independent diplomacy. But is there any country on earth that refuses to engage in self-reliant diplomacy? There is a sentence that diplomats frequently refer to: “The devil is in the details.” The cost of sloppy diplomacy can be high. Those involved should seriously keep in mind that on their every word, attitude and expression, lies our national interest.

* The writer, a professor at Kyonggi University, was a former diplomat at the South Korean embassy in Washington. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Song Ha-seong
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