[Viewpoint] Pyongyang’s misperception

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[Viewpoint] Pyongyang’s misperception

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton made an unannounced visit to Pyongyang, met with “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il and flew back home with two American journalists who had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.

The dramatic rescue made us think better of the status and meaning of an American president and it gave a chance for both Seoul and Pyongyang to ponder the true influence of a U.S. president over Korean affairs.

However, we need to watch closely whether Clinton’s Pyongyang visit will be seen as the breakthrough that began to thaw relations between the two countries.

In order for U.S.-North relations to develop smoothly, both parties need to have an accurate understanding of the position and circumstances of the other. Unfortunately, no one can be certain that this is possible.

Though Washington’s understanding of Pyongyang has its shortcomings, Pyongyang’s perception of the United States - and especially that of the U.S. president - is critically mistaken and limited.

Most specialists agree that North Korea’s series of hard-line moves since the inauguration of President Obama - such as the nuclear test and missile launches - were not planned and successful diplomatic offensives but mistakes resulting from the misunderstanding of the personality and positions of President Obama.

Pyongyang’s aggressive, provocative tactics have been met with responses from the international community to pressure North Korea, including new sanctions by the UN Security Council. And they have engendered an uncompromising response from the United States.

Even in the best of times, it’s often difficult to explain Pyongyang’s actions. But its nuclear and missile provocations are particularly difficult to comprehend.

The differences between President Obama and former President George W. Bush in their backgrounds, personalities and political philosophies have been highlighted a number of times.

Bush was born to a privileged family with political power. His grandfather was a senator and his father was president. In contrast, Obama was born to a Kenyan father and a Caucasian mother, growing up with an Indonesian stepfather and spending his teen years with grandparents in Hawaii. Bush’s extreme conservatism stands in stark juxtaposition to Obama’s aggressive progressivism. However, Pyongyang seems to have failed to notice the simple truth that Bush and Obama share an absolute identity: being American.

Pyongyang must realize that both presidents, beyond their personal differences, share basic American characteristics such as moral values and an uncompromising frontier spirit.

We often assume that American society and culture are based on materialistic values. This is too simplistic and stems from a prejudice that comes from observing America’s economic prosperity. But Americans have a strong faith in their values that goes beyond the mere material. They especially value what is fair and just.

Bush, who is a Christian fundamentalist, was a leader who was not reluctant to distinguish good and evil based on relatively simple values. Based on these beliefs, he branded Iran, Iraq and North Korea as forming the “Axis of Evil.”

Yet, if you assume Obama, who is known for his progressive values, thinks relatively lightly about moral standards, you should think again. You are making the serious mistake of failing to understand what it means to be an American.

President Obama is working hard to eradicate racial and class discrimination and inequality, because he believes that’s the way to realize American values and ethics.

It is fortunate that Pyongyang agreed to release the American journalists. But to President Obama and American citizens, such a decision might have left the impression that North Korea is an unethical regime that releases hostages as part of a negotiation strategy, rather than as a generous gesture from the North Korean leader or as a friendly move toward improving relations.

Pyongyang’s provocative tactics that try to test President Obama’s will with nuclear and missile experiments might be the outcome of its misunderstanding of the American frontier spirit and tenacity. In the Old West, a sheriff would always stand up straight even when confronted by outlaws. The frontier spirit is still alive and well among American leaders.

Pyongyang was seriously wrong if it had thought President Obama would commit political suicide by yielding to North Korean threats and pressure. Hopefully Pyongyang learned a lesson from the skirmish of the last few months and corrected its misconception of the United States.


*The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hong-koo

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