Losing face big time

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Losing face big time

I asked the late President Roh Moo-hyun why he had pursued a bilateral free trade with the United States right before it was time for him to step down. The liberal president’s pro-American agenda made even his loyal supporters turn their back on him and made his final months in the office lonelier. So I was curious to know. His answer was surprisingly short and clear. “It was all for the good of the nation.”

National interests were the key to President Park Geun-hye’s second visit to the United States last week. I personally most enjoyed her address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, during her four-day visit.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also made a speech at the CSIS during his first visit to Washington in February 2013. Toward the end of his speech, he proclaimed, “Ladies and gentleman, Japan is back.” That echo of “The Terminator” had two connotations. First, that Japan was recommitted to the U.S.-Japan alliance. And second, Japan would now raise its voice and profile on the world stage. Abe kept true to his words. He was unequivocally committed to strengthening ties with the U.S. Japan recovered much of its status in Asia that had been shaken after China became the No. 2 economy in the world.

Park stood at the same podium Abe had occupied 32 months earlier and spoke on the staunchness of the Korea-U.S. alliance. She also floated the idea of initiating summit talks with her Japanese counterpart. Her pitch was well-intended. It was the Washington think tanks that have been pressuring Washington to favor Tokyo over Seoul. Park reminded them of the long-standing alliance between the two countries for the right cause, shooting down any concerns about Seoul’s tilting towards Beijing following her presence at a military parade at China’s Victory Day ceremony. She also said, “I do feel that I can have a bilateral meeting with Abe.” She received a standing ovation from the crowd.

But her U.S. visit was overshadowed by a setback. Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo received a public cold-shoulder after his repeated plea for the Pentagon to okay licenses for the transfer of four core technologies for Seoul to make at home its next generation of fighter jet. The fiasco over the U.S. transfer of sensitive technologies for production of fighter jets should not have been an issue that travelled with the president to Washington. It should have stayed at home. But Han took it to Washington and brought public shame to the country and himself. The president had to swallow her pride instead of glorying in a 16-minute honor guard parade at the Pentagon.

The Korean military’s lies about the KF-X fighter program go back some time. I had an opportunity to tour the Air Force plant in Fort Worth, Texas, the manufacturing base for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 stealth fighters in the summer of 2013. I asked an executive of Lockheed Martin about the prospects for technology transfers. He was pretty clear about it. The issue of transfer of some technologies required licensing from the government.

The company was honest from the beginning.

It was the Korean side that had the wrong idea. On Sept. 24, 2014, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration announced that it discussed terms on the technologies, transfer, and pricing and offset rates with Lockheed Martin for an order for 40 F-35s. Technology transfers were the key area Seoul was looking for in finding a partner for its next-generation aircraft fleet to replace the F4 and F5 series. The administration did not mention any difficulties involved in that process.

The denial game did not end there. The Korean defense minister discreetly sent a letter to the Pentagon in August asking for licensing of the core technology transfer. Defense officials speaking to reporters off the record last month said if there was a problem, they could get the necessary technologies from European companies. Yet Seoul had other designs. The defense minister vowed to settle the issue once he met with his counterpart in Washington during the recent trip. Han sulkily returned home alone before the president’s official delegation.

The U.S. is known to be protective of sensitive military technologies. In February, Tokyo’s former ultra-rightist governor Shintaro Ishihara testified to a Diet budget committee that there was one country that would not be happy about advances in Japans’ aeronautic technology, pointing to the U.S.

Yet Seoul strangely clung to the F35A for the model for its next-generation fighter fleet despite the problem with technology transfers. By choosing the Lockheed stealth jets over other options, it may have given up on obtaining access to key technologies. Lying raises questions and questions build suspicions. We must get to the bottom of all the questions involving the multibillion-dollar KF-X program. We must address the issue in the context of sovereignty in defense. We must learn the truth in order not to repeat the shameful mistake the defense ministry has made.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 19, Page 34

The author is political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Seung-hee
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