Time to see the bigger pictureExcerpts from a confidential transcript suggest former President Roh Moo-hyun acted more like a salesperson than a head of state during a summit meeting with his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in 2007. He was eager to persuade his host. He even swallowed his pride in doing so. Roh was an eager businessman who wished to open up the heavily-guarded North Korean economy, which was in a pitiful state. He passionately explained the wonderful capitalist and free economy mechanism to someone who was clearly uninterested. Kim, who responded with apathy, however, hardly fits a good buyer. Being flat broke, he would have to borrow if he wanted to try anything new.
But the late South Korean president was excessively keen. He was so engrossed in the sales campaign - and so ardently drumming up support for the idea - that he sometimes appeared to be touting the Pyongyang regime. Roh, with just a few months left in his term, was giving and generous. He appeared to be working hard to return home with some results and end his presidency with a landmark achievement. He overstepped the mark by promising something the next president could not reverse. That’s my impression from reading excerpts from the transcript of the conversation between the two leaders during the summit. But it is clearly overblown to suggest the late president betrayed his nation.
Some claim Roh disavowed the Northern Limit Line, the de facto sea border since the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War. They may have a point. During the summit, the two leaders agreed to create a joint peace and cooperative zone for fisheries and maritime development around the sea border. If a common fishing zone is created, the military sea border would be meaningless. But that doesn’t mean Seoul attempted to hand over its side of the maritime zone. According to the transcript, Roh questioned the legitimacy of the NLL, which is opposed by North Koreans who claim it has been unilaterally drawn up by the United States. But the line comes from an over-enthusiastic salesperson pitching a business plan on joint development of the coastal region on both sides of the border. We all knew Roh’s speech style - direct, rough and far from subtle - even before we elected him as president. I will be willing to advocate for Roh if North Korea claims the NLL is ineffective based on Roh’s comments.
Views on creating a joint maritime peace zone in the Yellow Sea could differ. Those who worry about security get angry about the idea. But there had been sufficient study and debate on the joint fishing zone project. In fact, the North Korean military vehemently opposed the opening of a joint industrial park in Kaesong a few miles from the border. However, few can claim that Pyongyang surrendered its border line by agreeing to build an industrial complex in Kaesong to host South Korean enterprises.
According to the transcript, the Yellow Sea project is supposed to connect the Han River to Haeju harbor in North Korea along the west coast. Though mentioning that the North Korean military was strongly opposed to the idea of creating a special economic zone in Haeju, a military area, Kim indicated that he would agree to Roh’s proposal. The two leaders eventually agreed to discuss the specifics on a prime ministerial or ministerial level. But again, there was no indication of a unilateral abandonment of the NLL.
While I was reading through the transcript on the Internet during a business trip to Washington, I felt as shameful as if standing naked on a public street. We were debasing ourselves, losing our dignity and credibility before the eyes of the world. To be outright and frank is not diplomacy. It is why we refer to a euphemism as a “diplomatic” expression. It’s basic diplomatic common sense and custom to keep an unofficial dialogue off the record.
Who would talk openly and frankly to someone who is unreliable in confidence? Cooperation between intelligence agencies must also be based on mutual trust and security. Which agency would be willing to hand over and share top secret information with a party that has a track record of going public with confidential records?
President Park Geun-hye’s state visits to the United States and China have been muted and eclipsed by scandals - the sexual misconduct of her spokesman and the release of the NLL dialogue from a former president. The Northeast Asia region is at a critical point. A new geopolitical order is in the making after China’s remarkable rise on the global stage. North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats have become immediate threats. That’s why Park’s summits with the U.S. and Chinese leaders has been crucial. Seoul needs to draw up a long-term strategic vision on the future of the Korean Peninsula. But the government and politicians are engrossed with the past and invalid comments made by two leaders who already passed away. What’s the use of all this wrangling and controversy when both the ruling and opposition vowed to keep the NLL intact? The legislature has long lost its political role. There is no dialogue channel or trust in keeping secrets. Politicians are merely playing word and blame games, jeopardizing our security and foreign policy. While a person with nothing to lose clings to a cause, the better-off person should be flexible and generous. We need a strategist who can envision a bigger picture.
*The author is chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jin-kook