[Viewpoint]Summit carries risks for both partiesThe “elephant” finally appeared on Wednesday. That was the day President Roh Moo-hyun announced he would hold a summit meeting with Kim Jong-il, the chairman of North Korea’s National Defense Commission, during the last week of this month. That means the predominant topic in Korean politics for a while will be the South-North summit meeting.
Politicians, whether they belong to the more liberal political forces that earnestly support the summit, or the more conservative party, which has strongly criticized the sudden development, one will not be able to avoid talk of the issue during the coming weeks.
George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out in his book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” that Republicans, which are symbolized by the elephant, won several recent elections, including control of the Senate, the House and the White House, because they successfully set the agenda for what people are talking about. In Korea, too, I think the topics of public discourse before the presidential election in December will follow President Roh’s lead.
If that is the case, will the South-North summit meeting be a golden elephant that leads to a gala recoup of power and an ultimate victory in the presidential election for the more liberal political faction? It’s too early to say.
For the pro-government factions, there is one bit of good news and one bit of bad news. There is also one important lesson which can be applied to every politician.
First, the good news for the more liberal political faction is that the summit meeting has given them a platform on which they can stand to recover their inferiority in strength compared to the Grand National Party and the chance to set the agenda.
In the past, the economic revival promised by the Grand National Party had overshadowed the liberals. Now they can stand on par with the opposition, at least for the time being, on the issue of peace on the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, the summit will have additional effects, such as a revival of the political clout of former President Kim Dae-jung, the architect of the Sunshine Policy toward North Korea and the first leader to meet with Kim Jong-il, in 2000. The summit could also revitalize President Roh, whose approval ratings have sunk recently.
Moreover, the talk about the summit will essentially put the Grand National presidential candidates on trial. Their reaction to the summit will give voters a way to judge their crisis management skill.
Also, there is the possibility that each candidate’s rate of support in the primary, which will be made up of party members, representatives, the general public and the results of opinion polls, could be swayed.
However, there is some bad news, too, for the more liberal party. That is the ominous factor.
The summit meeting might, paradoxically, be a forum in which the progressives reveal their lack of ability. Although President Roh has successfully induced strongman Kim Jong-il to the summit, he might not accomplish any significant achievements on vital inter-Korean issues.
In other words, the summit might be a time for us to reconfirm our middle-power dilemma. That has never been more visible than in the painful hostage-taking incident, in which 21 Korean youths are being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even at this moment, the Korean youths there represent the dilemma of our rapidly expanding national power.
Our youths, who were full of self-confidence buoyed by our economic affluence, virtuously volunteered to help needy people in that desert.
However, after they were taken by the Taliban, we learned the bitter truth that our national power is not strong enough to save their lives in this cold-hearted and complicated international arena.
Likewise, our economic power nowadays is strong enough to induce North Korea to the dialogue table, but not strong enough to transform the North into a responsible member of the international community or a reliable partner.
Finally, there is a lesson that politicians of both the governing and opposition parties should keep in mind.
The first South-North summit meeting, despite its historical meaning, left a stain because the people who promoted the summit were later punished on charges of violating the law.
Former President Kim Dae-jung escaped punishment by taking shelter behind the logic that his exercise of presidential power gave him immunity and that his actions could be justified by the historical importance of the summit.
However, in inter-Korean relations, we have still not been able to find a balance between transparency in our procedures, openness and the effective implementation of government policies. Depending on how we handle these problems, the elephant called the summit meeting could suddenly vanish, or, paradoxically, drive the more liberal candidate into a difficult situation.
*The writer is a professor of political science at Chung-Ang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.