Getting Washington’s attention

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Getting Washington’s attention

The invention of machine guns in the 19th century changed the course of civilian rebellions and resistance movements. Peasants armed with pickaxes, clubs and, at best, hunting rifles were no match against soldiers that could shoot and fire several hundred rounds of bullets per minute from automatic firearms. Revolts to overthrow governments or dictators without the help from outside forces or an insurgency within the military became unthinkable. Great revolutions, such as when the enraged French public marched into Paris to topple the corrupt monarchy in the 18th century, were no longer possible. Science and technology changed socio-political movements.

Technology also opened a new chapter in civilian resistance movements in the 21st century. Alec Ross, a senior adviser on technological innovation in the U.S. State Department, explained in Seoul last year that in today’s digitalized and mobile world, mass-scale protests and rebellions are possible without a strong central leadership. Through the Internet and social network services like Facebook and Twitter, people can instantly connect around the world by using a variety of digital gadgets like smartphones. Anyone can organize a protest, anytime, anywhere. If people choose to join, it becomes a mass protest. The Arab Spring, a string of anti-authoritarian government protests that spread across the Islamic community starting in Tunisia in December 2010, is the best example.

Mobile social network platforms were the heroes of the Arab Spring movement. About 71 percent of Facebook users log in through wireless phones and tablets across the world instead of computers.

South Korea’s bestselling export is smartphones. Korean brands also sell well in the Middle East, where Samsung phones account for 44 percent of regional cellular phone sales. Combined with LG brands, more than half of the Arab world uses Korean-made phones. Korean phones have been instrumental in civilian uprisings against authoritarian regimes in Islamic society.

No despotic regime can completely withstand the power of mobile devices. Dictators could contain and quench civil resistance and protests through physical oppression, persuasion and control over ringleaders in the past. But in the digital world, those methods no longer work.

The death toll from violent clashes in Egypt has already exceeded 800. The strife in Syria and Iraq has also worsened. What do the renewed Middle East upheavals mean for South Korea? They should not be regarded as simple regional disturbances that could generate a spike in oil prices. They pose more serious questions for Korea because U.S. diplomatic and military attention is being redirected toward the Middle East.

Washington is entirely preoccupied with Middle Eastern affairs. Few are now thinking of the “Pivot to Asia” policy passionately championed by U.S. President Barack Obama two years ago. Washington’s radar in foreign affairs can be underscored by the overseas schedule of Secretary of State John Kerry. Since he took office in February, Kerry has made 12 overseas trips. He visited Northeast Asia once in April, and he flew to the Middle East six times.

Some in the U.S. media have sneered that Kerry may be aiming for a Noble Peace Prize for his mediating role in Middle Eastern affairs, judging by the way he spends so much time and energy on the region. They criticize Kerry for his excessive eagerness and his preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process while neglecting other urgent issues, like the civil wars in other parts of the Arab world and affairs in Asia. Susan Rice, the national security adviser who forms another main pillar in Washington security and foreign affairs, is also said to prioritize Africa over Asia.

South Korea is struggling with two major challenges on the foreign front: inter-Korean tensions and nationalistic fervor in Japan. Whether it wants to admit it or not, Seoul needs Washington’s involvement and aggressive interest to solve those two problems. Endeavors to renew six-party talks on North Korea’s denuclearization are stalled due to a lack of eagerness from Washington. Pyongyang may be frustrated that it lost Washington’s interest in accelerating talks for the normalization of ties despite costly and risky tests of long-range missiles and nuclear devices.

Washington could play an effective role in reining in the nationalistic campaign of the right-wing government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Despite his passion for scrapping Japan’s pacifist constitution and building its military, Abe could not just ignore Washington.

So how can the Korean Peninsula recapture Washington’s attention? Some say Pyongyang may have to detonate another nuclear device, which of course is a bad joke. But to raise awareness of the urgency of Korean affairs in Washington, Korea would have to lobby Washington officials ceaselessly.

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, who is also the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, is visiting Seoul. He represents New Jersey, which has a large population of Korean-Americans. He should be persuaded to criticize Japan’s prime minister and right-wing politicians to stop them from irking and worrying their neighbors with denials about past military aggressions, and urge Japan to take a more responsible role for regional peace and stability.

*The author is a senior writer of international affairs for the JoongAng Sunday.

by Nam Jeong-ho
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