[Viewpoint]The price of tactThe hardliners in the U.S. government, including Vice President Dick Cheney, told President George W. Bush, “We cannot trust Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. He sides with North Korea more than us. There is a rumor he has communist tendencies, too.”
Bush did not know much about Roh when the two met in Washington after Roh’s inauguration in May 2003.
After a meeting with Roh, however, President Bush told his aides that the hardliners’ opinion about Roh did not seem right. Bush declared he was starting to like Roh.
What triggered Bush’s comment was a remark Roh made at their meeting. The Korean president confessed he had forgotten the contents of a memo his secretaries had given him for the meeting and told Bush, “I will just speak naturally.”
Bush thought he could communicate with Roh easily and responded, “I also forget briefing materials often.” The two presidents, who were both born in 1946, are largely alike in that they do not like formalities and tend to push ahead with things according to their beliefs. A source at the White House recalled that, for this reason, the two presidents maintained a good relationship for a long time, despite the differences in their political viewpoints.
The situation was more or less the same when Roh visited Washington in June 2005.
Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had claimed Roh was weakening the Korea-U.S. alliance by advocating North Korea. “Let’s beat him up,” they said, according to the source. However, Bush told them, “We shouldn’t do that. He is my friend.”
During the meeting, Bush pointed at Rumsfeld, who was in attendance, and said jokingly, “I know the North Korean nuclear issue better than he does.” He then pointed at his National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, now the secretary of state, and said, “And this person knows the North Korean nuclear problem better than I do.” Bush was being considerate of Roh, who was worried that the hardliner Rumsfeld would interfere with Washington’s North Korea policy. Bush assured Roh that “Rice and I are in charge of the North Korea nuclear issue.”
According to the White House source, the relationship between the two leaders started to crack during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in November of that year in Busan.
Roh is said to have complained, “I am not sure if the United States really wants to negotiate with North Korea.” Bush felt bad because of that remark, sources said. Around that time, the Beijing agreement about the North’s nuclear program, which had been concluded on Sept. 19, bogged down due to the U.S. Treasury’s decision to freeze $25 million in North Korean funds deposited in accounts at Banco Delta Asia in Macao.
Even though Bush tried to explain that the measure had been a coincidence, Roh still appeared suspicious, according to the source. Since then, the two leaders have not recovered the friendly relations they enjoyed in the past. The friction between the two became obvious in a much-publicized exchange over the issue of a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula during a meeting at the APEC summit held on Sept. 2007 in Sydney.
In retrospect, Roh’s policy toward the United States was not that bad. The Roh administration’s decisions to dispatch Korean troops to Iraq and to conclude the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement would not have been easy even for a conservative government. It was always his public statements that seemed to get President Roh in trouble. A White House staff member said, “The United States was shocked when it heard that a Blue House official was going around saying, ‘I cannot sleep at night because I am afraid the United States will bomb the North.’”
In other words, the Roh administration failed to get full approval from the United States, even though it did good things for Washington, because the president and his aides made rhetorical anti-American remarks, apparently in an effort to be tactful to North Korea.
President-elect Lee Myung-bak, who will be inaugurated next month, is going to meet President Bush in March in Washington. The two leaders have to maximize the positive legacies left by Roh about Korea-U.S. relations, but cut out the wounds left by him.
Washington knows that, although President-elect Lee has conservative tendencies, the relationship between the two countries cannot go back to their previous fraternal level. Lee must explain Korea’s situation precisely, demand things that should be demanded of the United States, yet at the same time work on recovering mutual trust, which is of the utmost importance for the United States with all of its allies. President Bush should, in return, acknowledge South Korea’s status in the international community and its relationship with North Korea, while asking for South Korea’s cooperation in the North Korean nuclear issue.
The most urgent task for the two leaders is to make a concerted effort to ratify the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, which is not making much progress either in Korea’s National Assembly or in the U.S. Congress.
*The writer is the Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kang Chan-ho