[Viewpoint] A rare meeting of mindsA South Korean and North Korean reporter sat down in the truce village of Panmunjom for a New Year’s talk.
“News from the gulf doesn’t look good. South Korea could feel the pinch,” said the reporter from Pyongyang, referring to the escalating tension between the West and Iran following Washington’s toughest-yet economic sanctions against the Muslim regime and Teheran responding with threats to disrupt the international oil trade and a firing up of its uranium enrichment facilities.
“Pressure from Washington is pretty heavy,” answered the South Korean journalist. “We can get oil from elsewhere even following the embargo against Iranian products, but the bigger problem is that there are over 2,000 companies with business associations with Iran. We cannot but worry about possible retaliation from Iran if we go along with the U.S. sanctions. It’s funny how Tehran emulates Pyongyang’s ways.”
The North Korea reporter shrugged, “Well I cannot speak for Tehran. But the problem is with Israel. Everyone knows that Washington has its hands tied by pro-Israel lobbyists. Israel has already warned it could bomb Iran’s nuclear installations. America could object, or feign to object, but it will always be suspected of having approved the strikes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is politically cornered at home, and both Iran and the United States have leadership elections this year.”
The conversation eventually returned to the home turf.
The North Korean reporter talked candidly about the post-Kim Jong-il era’s priorities. “To cite the campaign slogan by former President Bill Clinton, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ and the first thing the country must address is the economy. Despite pledges to become a mighty country, the people are still starving. Whether it is food aid or other sorts of charity, we need to get help from the Americans. The Obama government, ahead of a presidential election, doesn’t want a rumpus on the Korean Peninsula. If we shift our long-distance missiles a little and release some smoke from the Yongbyon nuclear plant, we would probably get some reaction from Washington.”
“That’s what we call wishful thinking,” his South Korean counterpart retorted. “Nothing can be solved in that way. As long as Pyongyang upholds its ‘military first’ policy, your economy will remain in the dumps. Time has come for some radical change.”
The North Korean nodded his head in agreement. “But General Kim Jong-un cannot decide on that alone. There are too much conflicts of interest in the inner circle. It would be hard to build a consensus. But a change is inevitable, albeit incrementally, by use of the six-party card.”
The South Korean reporter changed the subject to lighten up the atmosphere. “Are you reading the Financial Times’ series of articles on ‘Capitalism in Crisis?’ ”
“I am,” said the North Korean journalist. “But there’s nothing new. It all comes down to the idea that there is no alternative. Despite the fundamental flaws of capitalism, there is no better system to replace it. It’s like what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of democracy. ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’?”
The South Korean agreed, “Regrettably, it is true. The first trap of capitalism is its insatiable appetite for wealth. The second are the inequalities and inefficacies from an ever-widening wealth gap. The fallout is a global financial crisis and the global ‘Occupy’ protest movements.”
The reporter from the land of capitalism turned passionate. “The economy and politics are like the two faces of a coin. To uphold the market economy and a free democracy, a self-checking mechanism should be at work to compensate for the flaws in the capitalism system. Politics, which should accomplish such a role, gets thrown off through factional dispute and conflict. It’s a common problem of all democratic states.”
At the censorious tone, the North Korean added, “The problem with democracy is that it’s all about money. Look at American elections and the astronomical money they spend. Politicians offer various immunities to businesses and raise funds from corporations to pay for the elections. You South Koreans are also in an uproar over wads of cash distributed during elections. As the saying goes, ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch.’?”
The reporter from Seoul responded. “We are hoping for a revolutionary change to end money-stained politics by campaigning through mobile phones and social network services.”
He added, “But it’s funny to hear such a response from you, a North Korean. North Korea is a dynastic land. You can hardly be the one to preach about democracy.”
The North Korean smiled feebly. “Yeah, well, we hope it will all change one day. Eventually.”
The two Koreans agreed that U.S.-China relations can affect Korean affairs. The U.S.’s new defense strategy to shift its concentration to Asia and the Pacific is aimed at staving off rising Chinese influence in the region.
China would likely challenge the U.S. and oppose Korean reunification. They came to the conclusion that it would be up to the two Koreas to find a breakthrough. In this, they found themselves in total agreement.
I woke up and discovered the entire dialogue had been a dream. But a good one.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Bae Myong-bok