[Outlook]Lee’s approach to WashingtonPresident Lee Myung-bak can learn exactly what not to do from his two predecessors, former presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung. That is why Lee’s first summit meeting with President George W. Bush bodes well from the beginning.
In March 2001, Kim went to meet President Bush just two months after Bush was sworn into office, despite advice from aides who said it was too soon for a U.S. visit. Kim’s meeting with Bush proved to be the worst in the history of Korea-U.S. summits. After returning home, Kim was very upset with the results and didn’t try to hide his anger. Seeking someone to take responsibility for the meeting’s failure, Kim fired Ban Ki-moon, who was vice foreign minister at the time. Kim coddled then-Foreign Minister Lee Joung-binn, saying that he was not an expert on the United States. But Kim asked why Ban did not prevent the meeting’s failure when Ban was an expert in relevant matters; very odd logic indeed.
In fact, Kim only had himself to blame for the meeting’s failure. The only things that Bush knew about Kim Jong-il were that he is an atheist and tyrant who forces numerous North Koreans into starvation and prison camps.
But Kim defended Kim Jong-il and said the North Korean leader was a smart leader who understands what other people try to say. President Bush interrupted while the Korean president talked, showing his distrust and skepticism about Kim Jong-il. One month before the meeting with Bush, Kim Dae-jung held a summit with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Kim and Putin released a joint declaration which contained the argument that ballistic missile systems, the very ones that Bush intended to dismantle, should be enhanced. This move put a chill on the missile defense system that Bush was enthusiastically pursuing with Japan as an ally.
Former President Roh Moo-hyun first met with Bush in a summit meeting in May 2003. Ironically, the result of the meeting was welcomed by the conservative Grand National Party and met with protest by Roh’s usual supporters, including former student activists. They said the Korean president’s diplomacy was shameful and even humiliating. Roh was elected president on a wave of anti-American sentiment but when he went to the United States, he was not his usual self.
Instead he was unusually meek and submissive. In an interview with the U.S. media, Roh said that North Korea’s behavior and arguments are often hard for international society to accept and that the communist country was an unreliable partner.
He also said that Korea must provide full-scale support to stop North Korea from exporting and spreading dangerous, illegal and inhumane items, such as drugs and missiles. However, after coming home, Roh went back to his usual self, crying out for self-reliance and getting caught up again in his pro-North Korean and anti-American stance.
Presidents Lee and Bush have several things in common which the U.S. president might find interesting. President Lee is a devout Christian, former CEO and conservative. If the two leaders have a chance to talk in a more casual setting, such as while wearing comfortable clothes after an official meeting and dinner at Camp David, they may confide that they both believe Kim Jong-il’s tyranny has something to do with his atheism.
As Korea-U.S. relations moved backward and their alliance has fluctuated over the past decade, it is fortunate that Korea has a leader who shares similar religious beliefs and ideologies with the U.S. leader, particularly in this important period of establishing a new order in East Asia, including on the Korean Peninsula.
Before leaving for the United States, President Lee said that there was neither a pro-American nor a pro-China policy. This might work against himself later because now Washington has an excuse to say that it doesn’t have a pro-Korea policy or won’t give favors to Korea if they are against U.S. national interests.
The United States now has many demands for Korea, such as sending troops to Afghanistan, paying a huge share of the cost of relocating U.S. military bases in Korea, importing beef from the United States and taking part in the missile defense system. These are the prices to pay for having a guest stay at Camp David. Bush might persuade Lee to adopt Washington’s stance concerning North Korea’s disablement of its nuclear facilities and declaration its nuclear programs.
It is unrealistic to expect a drastic change in policy to result from one summit meeting.
Restoring trust between Korea and the United States is the most important and urgent task of this time. A lopsided house must be set upright. Detailed issues are for working-level officials to negotiate on the basis of mutual trust.
As for the missile defense system, it will be best to avoid making remarks even if Bush asks for Korea’s participation. The Korean president must think about Korea-U.S. relations after Bush’s term ends early next year.
It is important to look at the bigger picture, just like President Lee said in New York — values, trust and peace are three important principles for a strategic Korea-U.S. alliance.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Young-hie