[Viewpoint] Two Koreas, two images

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[Viewpoint] Two Koreas, two images

When I came to the United States for a training program in 2001, the first thing I did was to visit a bank branch and open an account. The day after my initial visit, I received a call from the bank asking me to stop by at the branch one more time.

The banker asked me if there were any politicians among my family and relatives. I said I had no relation to politicians and asked why they had asked.

The banker asked for my understanding and said that the bank headquarters wanted to verify Korean clients’ political connections because Korean politicians were often associated with illegal slush funds, and the bank did not want to get involved.

I was quite offended and bitter, but I couldn’t protest. A country where every politician from the president to assemblymen have been involved in a slush-fund scandal was the image the Republic of Korea had at the time.

I chose to use a Japanese car that year. I didn’t think about a Korean car. Korean cars were known for their good performance, but unlike Japanese cars, the resale value of a Korean automobile would be very low. That was the image of Korean cars at the time.

Nearly a decade has passed since. Now the image of Korea and Korean brands in American society has been enhanced faster than the speed of time.

No longer are Americans buying Korean cellular phones, televisions and automobiles just for the comparative advantage in price. They are buying Korean products because of their luxurious and reliable brand value.

The elevated leadership of the Republic of Korea in the international community is one of the invisible yet leading elements bringing about the change to the national image.

One of the great examples is the Group of 20 finance ministers and central bank governors meeting held in Washington, D.C., last week.

Yoon Jeung-hyun, the minister of strategy and finance, served as chair and took initiative in designing a blueprint on how to lead the global economic system from here on.

It was the first time that Korea led the process of drafting a joint statement at a major international conference.

Deputy Minister of Strategy and Finance for International Affairs Shin Je-yoon explained the background of the drafting of the joint statement to the Korean correspondents in Washington and joked, “This news conference is like a lecture personally given by the author himself.”

It was true indeed.

He confessed, “I used to take down what other countries discussed at international conferences, but this time, I had to take the lead and compose the statement by myself, and it was a challenge.”

Minister Yoon said, “I am so proud that Korea now has the capacity to take the initiative and play a leadership role at an international meeting.”

Kim Choong-soo, the governor of the Bank of Korea, said, “In the past, other developed countries made their own international rules and never asked Korea’s opinion. Now, they are asking how Korea feels about various issues, and sometimes we speak for ourselves first.”

In contrast, the image of North Korea seems to have worsened since the Bush administration.

Many Americans think Iran and North Korea are brothers because they are often mentioned side by side as rogue nations that will not give up their nuclear ambitions.

Ninety-nine percent of the news about North Korea delivered to Americans is about nuclear experiments, missile threats, power succession for three generations, human rights infringements and extreme economic struggles. These are issues that just don’t make sense to Americans.

During the Bush administration, there were some voices criticizing President Bush for Washington’s North Korea policy.

Today, Americans don’t blame President Obama for North Korea’s failure. At the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington earlier this month, President Obama said explicitly that “sanctions are not a magic wand but such approaches are more likely to make North Korea alter its behavior.”

What Pyongyang needs to realize now is that even President Obama cannot change his position. How can a president of a democratic nation not be concerned with public opinion?

It is frustrating to see the widening gap between South and North Korea as the negative image of the North will be reflected on that of the South in the end.

*The writer is the Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Kim Jung-wook
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