[Viewpoint]Obama and the Koreans

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[Viewpoint]Obama and the Koreans

Barack Obama has never been to Korea, but he has experiences with Koreans. Having met ethnic Koreans living in the United States, he has a mix of positive and negative feelings towards us as a people. In 1985, a 24-year-old Obama went to Chicago’s South Side and participated in a community renewal campaign for three years. He mainly worked in Altgeld Gardens, an impoverished neighborhood with mostly African-American residents.

In his autobiography, “Dreams from My Father,” he recalls his days in the South Side, including a few mentions of Korean-Americans. He wrote some comments that he heard from other African-Americans.

“People from outside our community are making money off us and showing our brothers disrespect. ... It’s a losing battle unless you do like these Koreans - work your family sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. As a people, we’re not willing to do that anymore.”

Last June, I visited the South Side and traced the origin of Senator Obama’s perception of Koreans. I met with Korean-Americans, African-Americans and activists. They said, “Obama grew up in Hawaii, in a multi-cultural, multi-racial community. In his teens, he met second-generation Koreans and ate kimchi and bulgogi. Mr. Obama has outstanding insights into minority populations and is an excellent learner.”

They said that his autobiography reveals Obama’s ambivalent view of Koreans - a combination of positive and negative, envy and jealousy. He finds the positive aspects to be Koreans’ diligence, family values and devotion. He is a regular patron of a cleaner run by a Korean, and he learned taekwondo when he was in the state senate. However, there is an underlying impression that Koreans are selfish, uniting only with one another and remaining indifferent to the local community.

President-elect Obama is not pleased with the free trade agreement between Korea and the United States. He has said that the deal has many flaws and would end up taking jobs away from American workers. At the core of his dissatisfaction is the situation in the U.S. auto industry.

It seems that behind this distrust is the ambivalent perspective created in his mid-20s. The Koreans who successfully ran businesses in mainly black neighborhoods certainly made low-income African-Americans feel deprived.

Korean carmakers sell about 700,000 automobiles in the United States every year, and the United States exports about 5,000 cars to Korea. American carmakers are responsible for the gap, as they have failed to win the hearts of Korean consumers. American cars are not competitive against their German and Japanese counterparts. However, it is not wise for the Lee Myung-bak administration to say out loud that the United States should blame itself for the imbalance. Such an attitude is an unpleasant incitement.

Obama’s message of change is dazzling and emotional, but he is clever and realistic in carrying out promises. As an activist, he learned the win-win tactic of working with an adversary to achieve a goal. His time in leadership has also included time spent working with potential rivals.

Obama drives a Chrysler 300C, which is more affordable than similar models made by German or Japanese automakers. The Lee administration and Korean companies need to make the strategic gesture of purchasing American cars for government and business uses as a proactive expression of good faith. In negotiations, you need to display your understanding of the other side’s difficulties. The U.S. automobile industry is in jeopardy, and Hyundai Motors, Samsung Electronics and LG need to reach out and help.

Obama’s leadership will influence the Korean Peninsula. During his campaign, I heard two comments that suggest his attitude towards North Korea. He said he would rather meet an enemy than a friend, and that injustice in one corner threatens justice everywhere. He intends to talk directly to Pyongyang and wants to address the human rights issue. He has raised the possibility of a meeting with Kim Jong-il. As such, Pyongyang will be tempted to deal with the United States and exclude the South. The pro-Pyongyang leftists in Korea hope for a fundamental policy change. However, this anticipation is a naive misunderstanding.

Human rights issues are part of Obama’s identity. They are a key value behind his power. He will not ignore the human rights infringements in North Korea, and the issue is the Achilles’ heel of the Kim Jong-il regime. Obama will be a peculiar partner for North Korea. His approach towards the country will be a mixture of flexibility and hard-line policies. He is just as aggressive about denuclearization as George W. Bush.

Most young Koreans disliked the arrogance of President Bush, and Barack Obama is a charming change.

The Lee Myung-bak administration should make itself attractive to the United States as well. The appearance of Obama will make the Korea-U.S. alliance more sophisticated.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Bo-gyoon
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