[Viewpoint] Asian in a strange landI recently visited the capital of the global empire, Washington, D.C. Even though I had been there more than a couple of times, the atmosphere felt different this time to a visitor from the Far East. My visit came at a time when South Korea was unusually prominent in American political discourse following the Cheonan sinking and renewed efforts at a Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. The White House and Capitol Hill, not to mention the state and defense departments, were discreetly discussing ways of persuading China and Russia to back a UN Security Council condemnation of North Korea for its attack on the South Korean ship.
The capital of a global empire is always engrossed in world affairs. The lofty buildings lined along the center of the federal district are packed with strategists and pundits. For an empire, paying attention to foreign affairs is also seen as an essential part of ensuring domestic security. But an outsider from the Far East couldn’t shake off the troubling sensation that these beltway bigwigs might just toss away the problems of a tiny Asian country. One American family with a Southern accent approached this troubled visitor one day while sitting on a bench fretfully daydreaming about the fate of his home country. They asked where the White House was, and without hesitating I gave them directions.
Korea’s status in the global community is little changed from a century ago. The first delegates, clad in traditional Korean dress, arrived in Washington in 1883 carrying a letter from King Gojong pleading for special attention to Japan’s imperialistic designs on Korea. Washington has become a faithful ally since then. King Gojong befriended Korea’s first American missionary, Horace Grant Underwood, and enjoyed learning about American society from him and his wife. For a king trying desperately to keep the fetters of China’s Qing Dynasty, Russia and Japan at bay, America was seen as a safe haven. He wanted to send Crown Prince Sunjong to the U.S., but he was never able to fulfill his dream. Six decades later, however, Uncle Sam sent his boys to our war-torn soil. A plaque near the Pool of Remembrance at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington is inscribed with these words: “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” Some 54,246 Americans were killed and 8,177 are still missing in action as a result of the 1950-1953 conflict, their budding lives cut short in a strange land to uphold a fledgling partnership.
Korea-U.S. relations have often been defined and molded by the nature and relationship of the two nations’ leaders. That legacy descends from King Gojong, through American-educated President Syngman Rhee to Lee Myung-bak today. It is not known exactly why President Barack Obama feels partial toward South Korea and its president, but we hear tales of Obama getting teary after hearing his Korean counterpart’s recollection of lining up as a boy to get food aid from American troops, and Obama displayed full confidence in Korea by letting it host Asia’s first G-20 Summit.
Lee’s predecessors didn’t enjoy such warm hospitality. Kim Dae-jung was regarded as a member of the old guard and Roh Moo-hyun as a maverick. The Korean government took out an ad in the Washington Post and New York Times to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War with one simple phrase - “Thank You!” - under the flags of the two countries. Obama reportedly was touched by the ad and declared, “This is an alliance!”
Thanks to the growing ties between the two presidents, Korean Ambassador to the U.S. Han Duk-soo has never been so busy. He met with 137 members of congress in a bid for their support for the FTA, and many expressed hopes that Korean companies would set up factories in their own states. A few Democrats complained of anti-American sentiment in Korea when their government was pursuing a free trade deal despite opposition from the U.S. auto industry. Displays of feverish nationalism may be viewed as the pursuit of justice at home, but it comes across as immature whining in international politics.
Russia and China have officially declined to chastise North Korea for its role in the sinking of the Cheonan. Washington was resolute and said it would back South Korea even if it has to risk worsening Sino-U.S. ties.
I was sitting on the same bench when the family returned from their White House tour. I asked them if they enjoyed it, and they replied that it wasn’t a big deal. I found myself envying them. Will the time ever come when we can casually regard the U.S. and the White House as anything but a big deal? Upon my return home, the Security Council issued a statement on the Cheonan. In an empty phrase, it condemned the attack without naming North Korea. The local media fumed that it was a “half-won success” and “failed diplomacy,” but if you’d been in Washington, you would know it was the best we could get.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
By Song Ho-keun