[OVERSEAS VIEW]Criticism of the U.S. is counterproductiveAfter Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok was criticized by ruling and opposition lawmakers for stating in the National Assembly that the United States had made the greatest failure by allowing North Korea to launch missiles, President Roh rose to his defense and asked, “Can’t a Korean minister criticize the United States?”
My answer to that question is, “Yes, of course, a Korean minister can criticize the United States.” After all, the U.S. makes mistakes and as the world’s only superpower we are certainly used to being criticized from all quarters. British, Australian and Japanese ministers say critical things on occasion and it does not fundamentally damage bilateral relations.
However, the question isn’t whether a Korean minister is allowed to criticize the United States, but whether it advances Korea’s national interest ― as former Foreign Minister Yoon Young Gwan and others have pointed out.
It is also important to remember that throughout the North Korean nuclear diplomacy, there has been a steady and deliberate effort by the senior-most officials in Seoul to put the blame for North Korea’s bad behavior on the United States. The most famous criticisms include President Roh’s statement at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on November 12, 2004 that “it is understandable for North Korea to have nuclear weapons because of the United States’ first-strike policy,” and his claim after meeting President Bush in Santiago, Chile, that week that he had convinced Mr. Bush to “give up all use of force” against North Korea. President Roh and the Blue House have repeated the assertion on several occasions, arguing that “the United States hinted at the use of force” but South Korea’s “strong objections” have ensured that “there will be no war on the Korean Peninsula as long as South Korea is opposed to it.”
Put in this context, I would argue that there are at least five reasons why senior South Korean leaders should stop and think before casting stones at the United States.
First, the criticism of the United States is often based on inaccurate claims. President Bush has never “hinted” at using force against North Korea and never seriously considered any options other than diplomatic ones to get rid of North Korea’s nuclear programs. The White House has been perplexed at the repeated claims that President Roh “stopped” the United States from using force, and the president and other senior officials have tried to dispel this myth, yet it seems to be part of the official South Korean narrative.
Second, repeatedly suggesting that the possibility of U.S. use of force against the North is the greatest threat to South Korea unnecessarily undermines the confidence of the South Korean people in the United States and makes it more difficult to coordinate North Korea policy. Unfortunately, South Korea was probably the least influential player of any of the six parties in the Security Council debate last month ― not because it was out of the Security Council, but because Seoul’s main message was to criticize Washington and Tokyo and not work on strategies to stop further escalation by the North. Even China and Russia saw the futility of blaming Washington and not standing up to Pyongyang.
Third, blaming the United States for North Korea’s bad behavior is not working politically for the Blue House domestically. Polls show that the majority of South Koreans are growing increasingly skeptical about the North, and efforts to pass the blame to Washington instead of articulating a clear strategy are not resonating. I expect it would be far more effective politics to demonstrate a coherent and joint U.S.-South Korea strategy to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula, rather than casting Washington as the bad guy.
Fourth, exacerbating tensions with Washington is doing nothing to deter Pyongyang from further escalation. The July missile tests ― which came after universal urging that Pyongyang not proceed ― strongly suggest that North Korea has its own escalation ladder and is not just spontaneously reacting to provocations from Washington. The next rung on the ladder is a full nuclear test ― something I personally judge to be a 50/50 possibility within the next year. The tough Security Council resolution may have helped to slow down or even stop further North Korean escalation because of China’s firm stance, but the criticism of U.S. policy in Seoul is not doing anything to help deter Pyongyang from taking the next fateful step. It is important to stop emphasizing differences that Pyongyang might be tempted to exploit.
Finally, it is worth remembering that even in spite of a steady stream of criticism from Seoul, senior Americans such as President Bush and Secretary of State Rice have had nothing but praise for South Korea and have tried to maintain an emphasis on working together for a peaceful diplomatic outcome.
President Roh and Lee Jong -seok deserve a lot of credit for their hard work to strengthen the alliance in challenging areas such as the realignment of U.S. forces, dispatch of forces to Iraq and a free trade agreement. But when foreign leaders and ministers blame the United States publicly in the midst of a diplomatic crisis, it always also gets noticed in Washington. With President Roh coming to meet President Bush in September, it is more important than ever for the two leaders to have a clear-headed strategic discussion on the North Korea problem ― hopefully not one clouded by public airing of the “blame game.”
* The writer is former senior director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.
by Michael Green