[Viewpoint] Like Nixon, Lee is positioned to actRichard Nixon, the United States of America’s 37th president, was portrayed by himself and others as a spokesman for the so-called silent majority made up of America’s right-wing, conservative and anti-communist population. Still he did something that seemed to contradict this role. He visited China in February 1972 and shook hands with communist leader Mao Zedong, proclaiming the Shanghai Communique that served as the basis for Sino-U.S. ties for years to come.
For others, it would have been political suicide to set foot in this enemy state during the Cold War period. Although he was forced to resign over the Watergate scandal two years later, no one can deny Nixon’s diplomatic achievement through his historic visit to China. It punched a hole in the seemingly invincible wall of the socialist bloc.
“Only Nixon could go to China,” the saying later went. Because he was a staunch anti-Communist himself, his attempt was successful and convincing. If Democratic liberals like John F. Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson had made a similar venture, they may have raised an ideological storm, just as Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun did with their engagement policy with North Korea. Liberals welcomed Nixon’s surprising detente, while conservatives had to go along with their headstrong torchbearer. Nixon was just being a shrewd politician.
Opposition Democratic Party Chairman Chung Se-kyun - who normally opposes everything the current administration does - called for swift action when President Lee Myung-bak expressed a willingness to pursue a summit with his North Korean counterpart.
This quick and positive reaction resembles that of the U.S. liberal groups’ response to Nixon’s China visit. The Democratic Party, which set policy for the two previous inter-Korean summits, has little reason to oppose a third meeting, this one between President Lee and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, if earlier declarations by their former leaders Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun are to be respected.
As Nixon was the leader of U.S. conservatives, President Lee is the leader of conservatives here. The South Korean conservative population has divergent views on North Korea, ranging from moderate to hardline. Hardline conservatives oppose any idea of aiding the impoverished state. To them, the two Koreas shaking hands and agreeing on peaceful coexistence during a summit meeting would be meaningless. They believe South Korea’s ventures in Mount Kumgang tourism and the Kaesong Industrial Complex are a waste. They are identical to the evangelical Christians and neoconservatives who followed George W. Bush’s doctrine of caring for little beyond U.S. national welfare and interests.
President Lee should not count on their support. There are a greater number of silent conservatives with moderate views who are willing to applaud the president’s pursuit of a resolution to the nuclear problem as well as other pending issues, like repatriation of prisoners of war and kidnapped South Koreans, regular reunions of separated families and improvement of North Korea’s human rights.
President Lee is Mr. Right, as a formidable negotiating partner for Kim Jong-il who won’t cause an emotional ideological spasm in society. Moreover, he was once a businessman, well trained in hard bargaining. The North’s Kim is known to have respect for entrepreneurs, as manifested by his admiration for former Hyundai Group Chairman Chung Ju-yung and his family. To Kim, President Lee’s business background may have a different appeal than the two liberal politician-presidents that preceded him. The first-ever summit between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il was tainted by speculation over under-the-table rewards, while the meeting between Roh and Kim smelled more like a exhibitionist event that came at the end of Roh’s term and ahead of the presidential election season.
President Lee affirmed that the summit won’t end as a one-time event. He suggests he could meet with Kim many more times if necessary. If so, the agenda for their first meeting should be chosen carefully and be limited. If he tries to do too much, he could lose. For practicality, the formalities should be kept to a minimum. The first meeting should be focused on the North’s willingness to give up its nuclear ambitions and what it would take to make that happen.
Lee is best positioned to make an aggressive move with his “grand bargain,” as the North Korean economy is in disarray. He should erase from his mind the meeting’s potential impact on domestic issues like Sejong City and the upcoming gubernatorial elections.
He should at least sit down with Kim ahead of the upcoming G-20 summit. World leaders would surely pay attention to what the two Korean leaders discussed. A successful inter-Korean meeting could therefore determine the success of the G-20.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
By Kim Young-hie