[Viewpoint] Where’s our Kissinger?Henry Kissinger, one of most the significant U.S. statesmen and diplomats, will turn 88 on May 27. At an age when most people struggle to keep up with the times, let alone working to explore the past, Kissinger published an erudite book, “On China,” based on his valuable and active role in the historical meeting between Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong in 1972 and the subsequent establishment of diplomatic relations.
Few can match Kissinger’s stunning career. He was a professor at Harvard University, National Security Advisor and Secretary of State in the Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations. He helped shape U.S. foreign policy from 1969 to 1977 at the height of the Cold War, simultaneously warming up to the Soviet Union and opening relations with China. In 1973, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Vietnam peace talks.
Yet he has resisted becoming a museum piece and remains as outspoken and actively involved in current affairs as any contemporary expert. His soon-to-be biographer, Niall Ferguson, says that Kissinger’s advice has been sought by all of the recent presidents, from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama. He is not the elderly guest invited to decorate a president’s dinner table. His regular pieces in The New York Times show that he is more sharp, insightful and farsighted than most younger politicians or scholars.
His secret mission to China on July 9, 1971 marked the beginning of a new era. Max Frankel, a former editor of The Times who covered Nixon’s historical visit to China, recalled that the visit itself, although undeniably dramatic, was the easy part. The diplomacy to arrange it was the harder part.
Kissinger has been deeply involved as an advisor to Washington on Sino-American relations for the last four decades. Leaders of the two countries - despite the years gone by and generational change - still differ greatly in their world views. Kissinger has intervened and interpreted the differing innuendos and tones of a diplomatic dialogue between two cultures with clashing traditions and values.
Kissinger believes Chinese statesmanship is rooted in a sphere of time and space well beyond Westerners’ understanding. American statesmen want to reach tangible conclusions quickly. U.S. officials, as if they are actively involved in a military operation, make every second count in their diplomatic campaigns. The Chinese, in contrast, value perseverance. Mao once told Kissinger that the Chinese view of time is based on the unit of a millennium. China has risen to a shared superpower status with the United States thanks to such a wide perspective and a cautious approach to bilateral and world relations.
Another quality Kissinger discovered in Chinese leaders is their pragmatic flexibility. Mao learned his politics not from the socialist school of Marx and Lenin, but from Qin Shi Huang, the founding emperor of ancient China in 247 BC. It was Mao who first thought of improving Sino-American ties.
During a conversation with his doctor in 1969, when the Soviets and Chinese were on the brink of going to a war, Mao said, “Soviets stand at our north and west, India at our south, and Japan at the east. What if they join hands and come attacking us?”
Beyond Japan, he said, was the United States. He was following Qin’s famous strategy during the Warring States Period: attack neighbors and befriend distant states. Kissinger realized that Chinese leadership had higher priorities than their alleged Communist ideology.
Taking a cue from Kissinger’s visit to China in November 1971, South Korea attempted to contact North Korea in secrecy. Lee Hu-rak, the intelligence chief at the time, secretly visited Pyongyang in May the following year and laid the groundwork for the first inter-Korean peace treaty in 1972.
But that historic moment went wasted by politicians in both countries. Lee is said to have emphasized after his trip to Pyongyang that North Korea’s Kim Il Sung seemed to be a very strong leader. This knowledge could have triggered the authoritarian rule of Park Chung Hee and a stronger defensive posture against North Korea.
Inter-Korean relations are, of course, complicated. Sticking to a one-sided principle is the easiest resort. Unification Minister Hyun In-taek says it is entirely up to North Korea to apologize for last year’s deadly attacks. It’s much more difficult to make a bold initiative in tumultuous times, as Kissinger did.
South Korea lacks a larger framework for inter-Korean relations that can last a decade, let alone a century. It is too engrossed in domestic political battles, and sustaining power through a president’s brief, five-year term.
To ensure consistency in a policy, a consensus among politicians and the public is essential. Are we incapable of agreeing on a strategy that lasts a few years, if not a millennium? If we don’t have a Kissinger, can’t we find a group of wise men to do so?
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jin-kook