[Viewpoint] Korean fury in Cambodia

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[Viewpoint] Korean fury in Cambodia

South Korean and North Korean officials toured the ancient Cambodian temple city of Angkor Wat over the weekend. The men were wowed and fervently took pictures to capture the grandeur of the 12th century Hindu architecture, no different than regular tourists.

They were among the participants in the three-day International Conference of Asian Political Parties in Phnom Penh that closed on Saturday. It was hosted by the Cambodian government.

About 300 delegates from 89 political parties of 36 countries attended the sixth such assembly. They flew to the ancient temple complex on a special flight provided by the Cambodian government.

South and North Korean delegates were among them. Representatives Kim Hyung-o and Hwang Jin-ha of the Grand National Party, Jung Jang-sun of the Democratic Party, and Lee Yong-kyung of the Creative Korea Party and their aides went on the trip.

Four came along in the North Korean delegation, including deputy secretary of the Workers’ Party’s international department, Park Geun, though he was without his boss, Kim Young-il, secretary of the international department of the Workers’ Party, who bowed out citing personal reasons.

Delegates from the two Koreas exchanged fiery words and icy looks over North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island throughout the conference. They were hardly in a mood to enjoy a leisurely tour. They had their backs to each other and avoided contact during lunch.

Out of professional obligation, I attempted conversing with North Korean delegates. I was able to ask deputy secretary Park a couple of questions.

Journalist: “South Koreans are outraged by North Korea’s attack. They aren’t likely to tolerate it if North Korea strikes again.”

Park: “It is the South that provoked us first. We warned several times that we will strike if South Korea tests artillery around the Yeonpyeong area. We issued a warning on the morning of the event [the attack]. But South Koreans ignored us and went on with their fire drill. We merely acted on our words.”

Journalist: “Still, how could you have fired on an island populated with civilians? That is a ruthless attack that cannot be excused whatsoever. Civilians died in the attack.”

Park: “We targeted where the fire came from. We regret civilian deaths, but it is the South Koreans who are using civilians as human shields near a military base.”

Journalist: “Civilians were there for construction work near the base. The artillery shells fell on civilian homes far from the military base. What you say does not make sense.”

Then Park lashed out at the United States, arguing that the South is being fooled by the U.S., which is simply trying to bring a nuclear-armed warship to the Yellow Sea to contain China. He then went on with the North’s typical claim that South Korea is innately dependent on external powers before suddenly stopping himself.

South Korea started the rhetorical fire at North Korea during the conference. Former National Assembly Speaker Kim strongly condemned the Yeonpyeong attack. Kim commented on the Yeonpyeong event in his opening remarks while his North Korean counterpart, Kim Young-il, lashed back during an afternoon address, devoting half of his speech to condemn South Korea and the U.S.

In the first bout of the verbal war, North Korea walked off with a curl of the lip. On the second day, Representative Hwang used the podium to lambaste North Korea. His speech was mostly devoted to attacking North Korea, reciting the trajectory of the North’s provocations from the presidential assassination attempt in 1968 to the torpedo attack on the Cheonan in March. North Koreans remained silent.

The forum was established a decade ago to promote exchanges and cooperation among Asian countries of different ideologies and cultures to enhance mutual understanding and trust, as well as contributing to peace and co-prosperity in the region.

The conference takes place in different cities every one or two years to discuss global and regional themes of poverty, development, human rights, energy, resources, the environment and climate change.

But instead of a series of sincere debates, the conference room was full of smoke and fury generated by the two Korean delegations. They may have raised consciousness among participants of heightened regional tension, but at the same time were disrespectful of the host country and other members as well as the norms and practices of international forums.

North Korea is entirely blamed for the bombardment of Yeonpyeong. The Phnom Penh declaration contained words of indirect condemnation of North Korea’s provocation. North Korean delegates nevertheless enjoyed the tour of Angkor Wat. They must have grown immune to words of censure.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok
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