Taking rebalancing seriously“My mother believed and my father believed that if I wanted to be president of the United States, I could be, I could be vice president!” said Joseph R. Biden Jr. while campaigning in Ohio in May 2012. The audience burst into laughter. If he had pursued a career in entertainment instead of politics, Biden may have become a comedian as successful as David Letterman.
Last week, Biden spoke at Yonsei University and expressed his sense of humor once again. While speaking about the Korea-U.S. relationship for 40 minutes, he made the audience laugh 11 times. He was also very skillful in inducing applause.
“We will never accept the notion of the permanent division of the Korean Peninsula. And you can clap on that,” he said. He received eight rounds of applause.
Biden is also known for his straight talk. He often improvises in speeches and, actually, makes a lot of gaffes. President Barack Obama joked that Biden should learn to speak with a teleprompter. Last week, he couldn’t help himself during his tour of Korea, China and Japan. To Chinese visa applicants at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, he said, “The only way you make something totally new is to break the mold of what was old,” a remark that could be interpreted as encouraging revolution. While visiting an IT company in Japan, he asked Japanese women a question that sounded pretty sexist: “Do your husbands like you working full time?”
In Korea, he was being overly straight. Before an official talk in the Blue House, he told President Park Geun-hye twice, “It has never been a good bet to bet against America.”
Even a middle school student learning English could interpret his intention. He was basically saying it was not a good bet to bet on America being a loser. That’s how the American interpreter assisting Biden translated it into Korean. When the remark was delivered to Korean media through the press pool, some considered it a kind of a warning to choose wisely between the United States and China, which created something of a fuss.
Seoul and Washington immediately rushed to settle the situation. As Biden was emphasizing Obama’s desire to “rebalance,” or pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region, his remark was supposed to mean, “It is not a good idea to assume that America’s will and capacity for rebalancing are weakening.” The governments explained that Biden would never make a rude remark to the president of another country, and no American media interpreted the comment in such a way.
However, it is a bit hard to believe that explanation. I asked a few American friends, and they agreed it was an inappropriate thing for the vice president to say. Since Biden was clearly advised not to use controversial expressions that could be misunderstood, some thought he may have revealed his inner thoughts in the gaffe.
While it may have been a mistake, Biden’s “betting” remark is likely to leave a mark on Korea’s foreign policy. The Park administration is walking a tightrope between the United States and China. The United States wants Korea to clearly stand on its side with Japan. China is also working hard to draw the Park government onto its side. However, Korea cannot make a “full bet” on either side. We have to bet on both sides.
The United States may think Korea is joining with China to stand up against Japan. As Washington desperately wants a Korea-U.S.-Japan alliance, they may find President Park’s attitude tiresome as she firmly turns down Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposals. They are also concerned that the strategic dialogue between Korea and China could expand into the military area. Korea joined the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership at the last minute. Washington may think it cannot let Korea become closer to China any longer.
To President Park, Biden said, “The United States never says anything it doesn’t do,” stressing America’s decision to rebalance toward the Pacific Basin. In that case, America should quietly go into action. Instead of joining forces with Japan and showing off its muscle, Washington needs to pursue a peaceful rebalancing policy to resolve the nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiation with North Korea just as it has done with Iran and Syria. It is not wise to demand Seoul make a choice it can’t - without doing what it is supposed to do.
*The author is the editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Bae Myung-bok