[Viewpoint] A Greek tragedy on the peninsula

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[Viewpoint] A Greek tragedy on the peninsula

From Mount Olympus, the gods gaze down upon the Korean Peninsula.

“By Jove!” exclaims Zeus. “I mean, by my sacred beard! The former president of Korea has leapt off a mountainside.”

Ares, god of war, interjects: “Sonofagun! I mean, by the martial spirits! North Korea presumes to steal sacred fire and detonate a nuclear blast.”

“Kim Il Sung and his progeny long have I blessed!” wails Hestia, goddess of hearth and home. “And thus am I repaid, that the Kims’ myrmidons incline to Terpsichore, Muse of the Dance, to choose a new leader for North Korea.”

Let us examine these developments that have so captivated the immortals.

From the suicide note of Roh Moo-hyun:

“Too many people are suffering because of me. ... What is left for me for the rest of my life is just to be a burden to others. Don’t be too sad. Aren’t life and death both part of nature? Don’t feel sorry. Don’t blame anybody. It’s destiny.”

No regrets, then? Perhaps Roh saw himself as a fated figure in a Greek tragedy, unable to escape Nemesis, the goddess of retributive justice.

An astonishing number of Koreans - at least in prominent political and industrial circles - seem drawn to Nemesis as moths to the flame. Roh was the fourth democratically elected president of the republic. All three of his predecessors - Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung - were implicated either directly or through family members and close political associates in bribe-taking or influence peddling.

With so many cautionary examples, one wonders, why did Roh think that his family’s dealings would not come to light, especially after he had campaigned as an incorrupt candidate who would change the Korean political culture?

Korea is a gift-giving society. When I lived in Seoul as editor of this paper, gifts were constantly lavished on me and on my reporting staff. The former president, Kim Dae-jung, for example, gave me (and several thousand other journalists) a wristwatch. Surely it is not a uniquely Western insight that a gift represents a claim by the giver on the gifted.

Without making a scene, it is simply not possible to refuse all the proffered gifts (though the wristwatch’s battery has stopped now, so I am clean). But I laid down a rule for my staff that a free meal, for example, or an all-expenses trip to France must be refused. A few times, I even made a scene.

Perhaps a president ought to be smart enough to make a scene.

The scourging of Nemesis, we are told, is “politically motivated.” Well, of course. So were the investigations of Roh’s predecessors. So will be the eventual investigation of his successor, President Lee Myung-bak.

Through political motivations a democracy keeps itself clean.

It is hubris - another Greek concept, meaning tragic pride - to think otherwise.

So, who’s in charge on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone. Nemesis? Hubris?

Yes, and maybe also Thanatos, the Greek god of death.

The latest nuclear test in the North ought to end the hand-wringing about how to bring the six-party talks to a happy fruition. Pyongyang itself says that it has no further use for the six-party talks. Perhaps it is bluffing, or perhaps it is time for us to take the hermit kingdom at its word.

The global Greek chorus duly recites its mournful lines: “uncivilized act of provocation” (Seoul); “unacceptable” (Tokyo); “blatant defiance” (Washington); “danger to the world” (London); “a serious blow” (Moscow); “resolutely opposed” (Beijing).

But what are the guardians of global order to do about it, beyond scowling and consulting their thesauruses? What carrots, what sticks are available?

For years, the assumption has been that North Korea wants to be bought off, and that if we meet its price, it will give up its nuclear program. Is it not obvious, rather, that the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, between them, have so degraded their country that its sole remaining leverage is the nuclear program? Why would it cash that in?

Was it Koalemus, the Greek god of stupidity, who hatched Pyongyang’s strategy of deliberately embracing isolation while putting all its eggs in the nuclear basket? Or is Kim Jong-il bowing to Eris, the Greek goddess of strife and discord?

In any event, Nemesis, retributive justice, no doubt lies down the road. But - again from Kim’s point of view - the nuclear strategy may work to stall Nemesis until he meets Thanatos, the god of death.

That meeting may not be too far off. Have you seen recent pictures of the Dear Leader? He looks like a man who has failed dramatically in the months since his reported stroke last August. Once plump, he is now gaunt. The only pictures of him standing (that I have seen) show him leaning on something - the railing of a swimming pool, or most recently some kind of stand while reviewing an air force unit.

A leader can be strong from a wheelchair, as Franklin D. Roosevelt was. But FDR’s infirmity never sparked the sort of rumors now swirling around the North Korean leadership. Jockeying for the succession, it is written, has begun. This, it is said, is the meaning of Pyongyang’s hard line - the nuclear test, the threat to evict South Korean companies from Kaesong, and most striking, the reported execution of a senior North Korean official responsible for relations with the South.

There seems not to be a Greek god of ignorance; otherwise these pundits would have to admit that they are speculating.

Still, it is compelling speculation. Winston Churchill once said of the Balkan region of Europe (where Greece is located): “It produces more history than it can consume locally.” Has Korea become the Balkans of Asia?

Keep your eye on Nemesis. As the late president said: “Aren’t life and death both part of nature? Don’t feel sorry. Don’t blame anybody. It’s destiny.” Comforting words that no doubt help the Dear Leader to sleep at night.

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

by Harold Piper
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