Looking for a ‘Kerry effect’“In a sense, John’s entire life has prepared him for this role,” said U.S. President Barack Obama when he appointed 69-year-old Senator John Kerry as the successor of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Obama added that the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations was the “perfect choice” as “he’s not going to need a lot of on-the-job training.” Obama’s high praise is not superficial rhetoric. Since Kerry was first elected to represent the state of Massachusetts in 1985, he has been serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 27 years, including six years as its chairman. He is a prepared secretary of state with ample experience, outstanding insight and extensive connections in foreign relations.
Also, Obama owes a lot to Kerry. At the Democratic Party Convention in 2004, Obama emerged as a little-known senator from Illinois and walked off the stage a national star. At the convention, where Kerry was officially nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate, Obama was given a chance to give a speech televised live across the U.S. When Obama and Hillary Clinton were competing in the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries in 2008, Kerry endorsed Obama.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, Kerry played the role of Republican candidate Mitt Romney in Obama’s rehearsals for the candidates’ debate on foreign policy and national security. He played the Republican candidate perfectly, harshly cornering Obama. Obama said he’d rather work with Kerry than have to debate him. Kerry was so into the role of the Republican candidate that he later joked, “I’ve decided next Tuesday I’ve got to have an exorcism of Romney out of my being.”
Kerry is from an elite family from New England. He was educated at private boarding schools and majored in international politics at Yale University. He fought in the Vietnam War as a naval officer and was awarded the Silver Star. Upon returning to the United States, however, he became an antiwar activist. He led the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and testified to war crimes by U.S. forces before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is from a wealthy Roman Catholic family, but he is pro-choice and supports gay marriage. He is also a symbol of “limousine liberals.”
Kerry denounces America’s unilateralism in its foreign policy. Military strength may be used if it is necessary for national security, but it should be the last resort after all diplomatic efforts are exhausted, he believes. Moreover, he thinks the U.S. needs to closely cooperate with allies and the international community when using force. He supported the strike against Iraq to remove weapons of mass destruction and oust Saddam Hussein, yet he opposed George W. Bush’s unilateral military interventions. As the head of foreign policy in the second term of the Obama administration, what will his position be on North Korean policy?
Kerry consistently supported direct dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. When he was running for president in 2004, he told the Washington Post that if he were elected, he would not only have bilateral talks with North Korea to resolve nuclear tensions but also be willing to discuss replacement of the Korean War truce with a peace agreement and even unification.
His stance has not changed since the Obama administration came in. In an op-ed contribution to the LA Times in June 2011, Kerry wrote, “The best alternative is for the United States to engage North Korea directly” and “Inaction only invites a dangerous situation to get worse.” He was skeptical of the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” with Pyongyang. He has emphasized that humanitarian assistance for North Korea should be separated from politics. Kerry’s stance makes us hope that his appointment would bring positive effects for U.S.-North relations and Korean Peninsula affairs.
However, it is too much to expect a drastic change in Washington’s North Korean policy just because a new secretary of state has been appointed. Moreover, Kerry shares Obama’s position that the alliance with Seoul is more important than talks with Pyongyang. He would only dance a waltz with North Korea if the South Korean government claps and cheers from the sidelines. If the Park Geun-hye administration is willing to talk with Pyongyang and supports Washington’s engagement - unlike the Lee Myung-bak administration - the Kerry effect will bring some positive outcome.
North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un came close to batting his eyes at Seoul and Washington in his much-publicized New Year’s address. If North Korea refrains from further provocations such as another nuclear test, Kerry’s new role will spark developments in both inter-Korean relations and the U.S.-North relationship. The power of the Kerry effect depends on the choices of the South and North Korean leaders.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Bae Myung-bok