[Viewpoint] It’s all up to PyongyangWhen I read “Decision Points,” a memoir by former U.S. President George W. Bush, my initial reaction was disappointment and surprise. In the 481-page book, Bush devotes on four pages to affairs on the Korean Peninsula. Presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak were not mentioned by name. I felt rather embarrassed to learn that South Korea has such an insignificant place in the former U.S. president’s mind.
His discussions on Korea begin with a reference to “Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag” by journalist Kang Chol-hwan, who defected from North Korea. Bush wrote that the book influenced him greatly during his administration. Kang depicted Kim Jong-il as a ruthless dictator who enjoys fine cognac, luxury Mercedes-Benz cars and foreign films even as North Koreans suffer from devastating famine and political oppression. Moreover, Bush looks at the North’s missile and nuclear experiments as mere grumblings to attract Washington’s attention.
While in office, Bush defined North Korea as an “axis of evil” and a “rogue nation,” and the phrases are not rhetoric by speechwriters but a reflection of his own perceptions and philosophy. The hard-line North Korea policy also mirrors his attitude toward the North. While it is generally acknowledged that his North Korea policy changed considerably in his second term, the memoir suggests that Bush’s perspective on North Korea was consistently negative throughout his two terms.
Bush was not the only one with a negative perception of North Korea. Current U.S. President Barack Obama also has similar views. While Obama said he is willing to meet and negotiate with anyone, he has consistently pressured North Korea. The North Korea affair is a low policy priority, and it is not because Seoul made such a request. Obama certainly has negative perceptions of North Korea, and Pyongyang is largely responsible for the reputation.
North Korea launched a long-range rocket on April 5, 2009, only a few hours before Obama made a major speech about a “world without nuclear weapons” in Prague. The day before the speech, Obama polished his remarks before going to bed. But early in the morning, he learned about the rocket launch and made a last minute revision to add a few lines denouncing North Korea.
It must have been hard for Obama to understand Pyongyang’s behavior, since he had repeatedly conveyed to Pyongyang a message to refrain from provocative actions until a team designated to the North Korean nuclear issue was formed and the new administration reviewed the policy. Obama called the rocket launch “extraordinarily provocative” and called for a strong response, including a United Nations resolution.
President Lee Myung-bak advocates pragmatism, but he, too, has not moved on from distrust toward Pyongyang. In a New Year’s interview, Lee said that he cannot tolerate Pyongyang’s attitude, as “North Korea provokes, and then reaches out to have talks, and then demands rice and fertilizer.” Lee believes that the pillaging behavior lacking in sincerity must be strictly punished, and his conviction is reflected in his North Korea policy.
As a result, South Korea and the United States have been turning down Pyongyang’s proposals to talk. The breakdown of the inter-Korean working-level military talks was expected, but because people increasingly think that talks are useless, the “March crisis” theory is spreading.
People are worried that the confrontation and critical situation we experienced last year may be repeated. The vicious cycle of distrust and confrontation is aggravating.
Who can end this vicious cycle? Pyongyang must make a decision now. It has to make drastic decisions to change the perceptions of the chief executives of South Korea and the United States and create a national consensus for reconciliation and cooperation.
By taking the first step to change, it will surely receive friendly responses. Any further nuclear experiments, missile launches or military provocations will be serious obstacles.
Pyongyang must learn to control itself. And North Korea should take a few drastic steps to prove that it is changing its position on major issues. Pyongyang may abandon its nuclear program, relieve inter-Korean tensions, pursue opening up and improve its human rights conditions. Such moves will be an important turning point. Before demanding the others to change, North Korea can initiate the change. It will be the first step to ending the decade-long vicious cycle of distrust, confrontation and discord. And the timing is ripe.
*The writer is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.
By Moon Chung-in