[Viewpoint] A smiling face charms the world

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[Viewpoint] A smiling face charms the world

U.S. President Barack Obama is taking some fancy diplomatic steps.Just like Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression, Obama seems to be obsessed with the idea that he must bring about tangible success not only in the economy but also in diplomacy within 100 days of his inauguration.

The United States has proposed multilateral negotiations with Iran involving the UN Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany. The U.S. apparently plans to resolve the nuclear issue with North Korea through the six-nation talks and with Iran through the seven-nation talks. It is a bold proposal, a complete change from the Bush administration’s policy of rejecting talks with Iran.

Obama’s change in Iran policy could be foreseen when he participated in a surprise show for the Iranian people on March 20. In a video message released on the Iranian holiday of Nowruz, Obama said, “We have serious differences that have grown over time. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect,” asking Tehran to end the animosity.

He also did not forget to praise the greatness of Iran’s civilization. The U.S. even invited Iran officially to an international conference to support Afghanistan in The Hague last week.

There is an old saying in Korea that no one can spit on a smiling face. Iran is responding warmly to Obama’s repeated appeals, and the three years of discord between them is thawing.

At his inauguration, Obama actually proposed reconciliation with enemies of the United States, saying, “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” In fact he is trying to give a “high five” to many nations, a change in the paradigm of U.S diplomacy. Obama’s gestures are unilateral. He began his presidential term by signing an executive order to shut down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He also sent a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in which he said Washington would reconsider a missile defense system in Eastern Europe in return for Moscow’s cooperation in resolving the Iran issue. He also wrote about his intention to talk with the doves in the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Some discord emerged with Western European nations during the days of the Bush administration, but Obama has managed to mend the rift, reminding us of the honeymoon between Europe and the United States in the days of John F. Kennedy.

Obama also sent an envoy to Syria. In Turkey, Obama wooed the Muslims by saying, “”The United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam.” He is also trying to open a dialogue with Cuba, an enemy of the United States for a half century. Obama is showing that he will listen to his partners without forcing the U.S. position. Instead of speaking about spreading democracy, he addresses climate change, a ban on nuclear tests and nuclear disarmament, embracing the international community’s hopes. Adding soft power to hard power, Obama is spreading the charm of the United States as a smart power, promoting a “new start.”

The new diplomatic paradigm of the United States will soon affect its North Korea policy. Pyongyang’s long-range rocket launch apparently ended in failure. The aftermath will pass, and the six-nation talks will resume. While Washington will do its best to cooperate with Seoul, it will be impossible to stop Pyongyang and Washington from reaching a compromise. Depending on how fast that compromise goes, it could produce a subtle rift between Seoul and Washington. Seoul may also have to follow Washington passively.

In the global financial crisis, China is more important than ever. Between the U.S. and China, Korea’s position is also harder than ever. In order to resolve the situation, improving inter-Korean relations is a must.

Rockets are rockets, and dialogue is dialogue. In an interview with foreign media in London last week, President Lee Myung-bak spoke about the sending an envoy to the North.

Now is the time. Before we see the United States’ diplomacy advance in the North, why can’t we act first?

The writer is an editorial writer and travelling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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