[OBSERVER]Korea’s ‘hub’ dreams melt in the heat

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[OBSERVER]Korea’s ‘hub’ dreams melt in the heat

SEATTLE, Wash. ― It’s been a long summer, but I’ll be home tomorrow. While I was away . . . let’s see: “The crazy guy with the bouffant” ― that’s the American impression of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il ― threatened war . . . again. Ho-hum. The Blue House decided to sabotage the negotiations for a free trade agreement with the U.S. Ho-hum. And . . . it was ungodly hot. Ho-hum.
Wow! Seven weeks away from Korea, visiting a hundred (or more) friends and relatives in four countries, and apparently I missed nothing, not even heat. Everywhere we stopped ― in Moscow, Italy, Germany and four (mostly northern) places in America ― the temperature, at least some of the time, was above 33 degrees (91F).
But at least we missed Korea’s summer floods, the worst, so I read, since 2001.
As the rest of the world saw it, the big story from Korea this summer was the alleged cataclysm spawned by last month’s North Korean missile tests. Many of our friends used the same word ― “chaos” ― to describe what it must be like in Seoul this summer. “I’ll bet you’re glad to be out of there,” they said, and “That guy is irrational,” and “All those nukes trained on you?”
I’m as blase as any Seoulite. I tell my friends, “If Kim Jong-il should start a war, he would lose. So why would he do that?”
Even by the complacent standards of Seoul, however, the Blue House remained remarkably unruffled. Acknowledging the missile tests would be lamented, the Roh Moo-hyun administration located the real source of tension in Northeast Asia in Japan, whose statement on the tests appeared to hint a military option might not be unthinkable.
Overreaction? I would agree. But for the Blue House to suggest that Japan, not North Korea, is the core problem in Northeast Asia shows how feckless and unimaginative its policy has become. The last president, Kim Dae-jung, also made it a point to excuse provocations from Pyongyang. Even when North Korean ships initiated a gun battle in the Yellow Sea during the World Cup four years ago, President Kim refused to treat it as a crisis and pointedly remained in Japan to watch the next soccer match.
But the North-South summit had been only two years earlier. The “sunshine policy” still seemed to have a chance to achieve its purpose. Now it is pretty clear that it is achieving only Kim Jong-il’s purpose.
To my American and European friends who insist that Kim Jong-il is irrational, I try to explain that Mr. Kim is a fascinating blend of incompetence, criminality and genius. Having ruined his country, he uses this failure to prey on the fears of Seoul and the world. Send food and money, he threatens, or beware the consequences of my irrationality.
From his viewpoint, that’s rational. The Blue House, on the other hand, persists in a policy that clearly advances only Mr. Kim’s interests. Where’s the rationality in that? As for the free trade negotiations with the United States, this time Seoul is playing a rational game ― if you assume that its strategy is not, as previously announced, to become the long-vaunted hub of Northeast Asia.
There are a number of indicators pointing to a Hermit Kingdom rather than hub strategy. One is last spring’s fiasco of government indecision and outright welshing that led to the delay and continuing uncertainty about the new Yongsan Foreign School, something that international business interests had pushed hard, with ― they thought ― support from the Korean government.
Another plank in the “flub-the-hub” strategy may be Seoul’s refusal to hold North Korea accountable for its actions. The Kaesong Industrial Complex and other such efforts make sense if the message sent to the outside world is that the two Koreas have put aside former hostility. But the message now being sent is that cooperation on the peninsula is hostage to the caprices of the Dear Leader. Sorry, but when I become a billionaire, I will be looking for a more promising investment arena. The linchpin of the “No-hub-here” strategy, however, and the reason that I am convinced that cunning, not incompetence, is afoot, is the Blue House’s announcement that there will be no free trade agreement with the United States unless goods produced in North Korea are treated as South Korean.
But North and South Korea are separate economies and independent sovereignties; both are UN members. So should goods produced cheaply in Mexico have free entry into South Korea under the free trade agreement? Further, does the Roh administration really believe Washington will give the Pyongyang economy such a break as access through South Korea for its manufactures ― cost-free to the North?
These points must be obvious even to the Blue House. What we can infer, then, is that the Roh administration wishes to exempt Korea from global free trade, but also wishes the blame to fall on someone other than Korean farmers or labor unions ― namely, on Americans. Anyway, isolation from the world worked pretty well for North Korea, right? I have a T-shirt. “Dynamic Korea, Hub of Northeast Asia,” it says. It’s a nifty little souvenir, but I guess it’s time to offer it on e-Bay and see what I can get for it.

* The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and a professor at Yonsei GSIS.

by Harold Piper
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