[Overseas view]Wishing for a trillion

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[Overseas view]Wishing for a trillion


Dear Santa,

I have been a very good boy all year, so I know you will take care of me at Christmas. Actually I have only two requests, a small one for myself, and a big one for Korea.

For myself I ask only a trillion. Not necessarily a trillion of anything in particular, although dollars would be nice. Mainly, though, I just want to understand the concept of a trillion.

How much is a trillion? Do I have a trillion cells in my body, for example? If a trillion snowflakes fell on Seoul, would the snow be one centimeter or 10 centimeters or 10 meters deep?

Koreans understand trillions. Their currency became so inflated that even middle-class Koreans are multimillionaires (I was one myself when I lived in Korea and was paid in won). Apartments in Gangnam go for billions. Trillions are mostly reserved for government appropriations and Bank of Korea transactions.

What Koreans don’t understand is the concept of “one.” One won, I mean - when was the last time anybody saw a one-won coin? Probably a few remain in hidden stashes guarded by ancient grannies fearful of the return of hard times.

It appears that Americans and their pennies may be following the Korean example. We still mint and use pennies, but they are so worthless that many people disdain them, including my own children, who tossed their pennies into jars rather than have useless metal wearing out their pockets. When they went off to college, I emptied the jars and bought myself a modest bottle of French wine.

If they had left behind a trillion pennies, that would be $10 billion - peanuts for the big-time defaulters in the U.S., but probably enough for me to ride out the economic winter.

Now it is the turn of Americans, like Koreans, to discover the concept of trillions. A trillion dollars has been earmarked for bailouts and stimulus packages to fight the economic crisis. The U.S. budget deficit for next year is forecast to exceed a trillion dollars.

That’s 1,000,000,000,000. It looks more impressive with all the zeroes, doesn’t it?

And, according to economic logic - too much money chasing too few goods - throwing money at a stagnant economy must inevitably lead to inflation.

So what comes after trillion? Quadrillion.

But for this year, Santa, I will be satisfied with a trillion.

Thank you.

Now then, for Korea, my request is a little more challenging. I would ask you to take on the North Korea problem.

It is a headache, for sure, but you are supernatural. Mortals cannot do this, and that is why I believe in you.

I also believe that Christopher Hill, the U.S. diplomat charged with pacifying the Korean Peninsula, has been a good boy all year. Not successful in his task, but good. But Santa, even if Mr. Hill has not been good, would you please give him anything he asked for on his Christmas list. The poor guy has spent five years trying to talk sense to North Koreans. He deserves some compassion.

The latest news is that negotiations in the six-party talks are at a “standstill.” Is this “news” or “olds”?

The North Koreans will not allow the removal of soil samples around their nuclear sites. These samples could prove - or disprove - North Korean compliance with its agreement to shut down its nuclear weapons program. Removal of soil, Pyongyang says, was never specified in the annual “breakthrough” that precedes the annual hope-dashing “standstill.”

Of course it wasn’t. There was only bland language about “verification.” Not to nail down everything in writing is now being treated by certain editorial writers in South Korea and the United States as an example of U.S. failure of leadership.

Only last summer, certain other editorial writers in South Korea and the United States were hectoring Mr. Hill over the opposite failure. To secure an agreement, he should be more forthcoming to Pyongyang; he should agree now on the general - “verification” - and defer the details until later.

Astonishingly, many of them were the same editorial writers. I am tempted, Santa, to wish that for Christmas you would give each editorial writer a brain.

But that would be insulting. You probably know this, Santa, but here’s the thing about editorial writers - and I know this because I’ve been an editorial writer myself. The good ones don’t just issue opinions off the top of their heads. They talk to diplomats and scholars and experts and then, allowing for enthusiasm and bias, pass along what sounds sensible and reasonable - counsels of moderation in the summer, of precision in the fall, always delivered with scolding condescension which also comes from the diplomats and scholars and experts.

So, Santa, the editorial writers are smart enough, but would you please give a brain - at least on North Korea issues - to the diplomats and scholars and experts.

And for the new American president and secretary of state, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who do have brains, please give them earplugs so that they won’t listen to too many diplomats and scholars and experts.

I have asked a lot already, Santa, but could you grant just one more wish? For Kim Jong-il, good health, and if it is true as “sources” (i.e., diplomats, scholars and experts) anonymously hint that he has been seriously ill, then swift recovery.

Mr. Kim has played a canny game for a long time, dragging out peace negotiations to keep himself and his regime secure in power. He has not been a good boy, this year or any other. But at least he understands the game. Any successor regime is likely to be truculent, or insecure, or pro-Chinese, or all three.

So please, Santa, a trillion healthy body cells for Kim Jong-il.

For Korea, Santa, my request is a little more challenging. I would ask you to take on the North Korea problem.

*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Harold Piper


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