[Viewpoint] Call for a pragmatic summit

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[Viewpoint] Call for a pragmatic summit

‘Boys, be ambitious!” It’s a famous quote by educator William Clark and one of the first English sayings most Koreans who spent their school days in the 1970s and ’80s learned by heart.

But during a recent dinner, I learned there is a new political twist to the saying. A friend said it now goes, “Boys, be MB,” referring, of course, to President Lee Myung-bak. I laughed at the humor, but somehow few others joined in, shifting to another topic. They may not have wanted to ruin the party with political talk or come to an awkward moment due to ideological disagreements.

The quote’s tweaked version may draw different responses depending on one’s political leanings. Someone who doesn’t agree with the incumbent president and administration can take it as offensive and satirical. But a fan of the president can genuinely consider it a compliment.

As I shared the clever modified version of the old quote with others during the last couple of days, I suddenly came to ask, what exactly is being like MB?

From the late President Kim Dae-jung, we think of statesmanship and craftsmanship. From the late President Roh Moo-hyun, the words integrity and temperament spring to mind.

But somehow we get no particular vibes from President MB. The president has shifted his image from corporate-friendly to public-friendly, suggesting a lack of a strong backbone in values and priorities. He may be a born corporate manager who looks more to straightforward accomplishments than ideological introspection.

Maybe “being MB” is lacking substance. Maybe that’s why his catchphrase had been “pragmatic” from the start of his term. Being pragmatic is making things work and valuing what has been accomplished. That may have been what MB-ism is all about.

The brewing talk about a possible summit between the two Koreas fits the picture of the MB-ist way of doing things. And I think it’s not bad.

Timing is most important in summit meetings.

Former President Kim Dae-jung missed his chance for a summit in 2002 because of differences over location. Kim wanted the second meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to be in Seoul, which was promised during the first talks in Pyongyang. But the North demanded it be in a third country. Because of public outcries, Kim ultimately gave up on talks despite the potential difference a second summit could have brought.

The way to closer inter-Korean relations and peace on the Korean Peninsula slipped further away. The first summit between the two Koreas since the war was symbolic, but a subsequent meeting could have produced a practical forum and even action plans.

Kim’s successor Roh initially opted out of a summit. He refused to meet with the North unless it resolved suspicions over nuclear development. But North Korea’s nuclear program only flourished, resulting in nuclear testing and the North declaring itself a nuclear power. Toward the end of his term, Roh visited Pyongyang and met with Kim in 2007, offering various forms of economic aid but helping little to improve bilateral ties or resolve the nuclear predicament.

Like most important affairs, opportunity and timing are critical. By missing a chance, one ends up taking the longer and more costly course. While now would be the perfect time for a summit, some say the nuclear problem has to be resolved beforehand.

That’s shortsighted. Leaders of the two Koreas should specifically meet in order to settle the matter for themselves. Though the North Korean nuclear program is an international issue, it is a matter the two Koreas can best unravel. If we hesitate, the matter could be dealt with between North Korea and the United States.

The two have been openly and discreetly in contact to discuss the agenda for talks. If they reach an agreement, we could be no more than an onlooker.

We lost face and money from the 1994 U.S.-North Korea agreement in Geneva where Pyongyang agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for aid to build reactors.

Besides, Washington’s ultimate aim may differ from ours. We want complete dismantlement of the North’s nuclear weapons program while Washington may be content with Pyongyang’s commitment to non-proliferation. No, we cannot afford to miss the chance.

The outcome is what’s important, not the formalities. The location should not matter, whether it be Seoul, Pyongyang or any other city. This government is not called pragmatic for nothing. Let’s see its pragmatic approach work best in an MB-style inter-Korean summit.


*The writer is a professor on North Korean affairs at Ewha Womans University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


By Cho Dong-ho

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