Begging for peace
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
After Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha hinted at the possibility of easing sanctions on North Korea at the National Assembly, U.S. President Donald Trump last week said “South Korea will not lift sanctions on Pyongyang without U.S. approval.” President Moon Jae-in said it was a comment suggesting close cooperation. South Korean Ambassador to the United States Cho Yoon-je went a step further by saying that it meant there would be no removal of sanctions without the consent of the United States as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Such views are quite different from those in the United States. Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, said it meant Korea is no longer the same faithful ally that it was during the Korean War. Jenny Town, 38 North editor, said Trump was expressing discontent with Seoul for pushing rapprochement with Pyongyang without communications with Washington. In the end, it could be a matter of interpretation.
But there are two issues here. Trump has never used words like “approval” when talking of U.S. allies. There are no signs of improvement either. Trump has picked on South Korea about sharing defense costs. He could be either boastful from praise or angry at South Korea for begging for peace with North Korea.
When you don’t have leadership, it is dangerous to pursue two-track strategies. The Moon administration thought praising Trump would help ensure progress. But the government not correcting its mistakes at the right time sparked Washington’s discontent and contempt. No matter how urgent the nuclear issue is, kowtowing diplomacy and pragmatic diplomacy are separate.
About the Washington Post interview, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said that she did not propose Washington should delay North Korea’s submission of a list of its nuclear weapons. “The media and the opposition parties are fabricating what I said in the interview,” she fumed. She said her exact words could be verified on the Washington Post website.
I checked her interview several times and talked to some American reporters. Clearly, Minister Kang never used the word “delay.” Instead, she said, “I think at this point for North Korea to say here’s our list, and then you get into an argument about 'is this complete, is it not complete, is there anything in hiding?' and then after the list you get into a discussion about verification, that could take a long, long time.” She added, “I think based upon that experience we want to take a different approach.” In fact, her remarks could be interpreted as meaning that the dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear facility and an end-of-war declaration may be needed before North Korea submits a list.
That’s why the Washington Post wrote that she proposed the United States “hold off’ on the reporting of North Korea’s inventory. I hope she checks the context of her interview and confirm whether her comments were really distorted. As a foreign minister, she must take responsibility for her words rather than denying them. False explanations are worse than fake news.
Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon went a step further. He excluded reporter Kim Myung-sung, a North Korean defector who wants to join the media pool for the high-level inter-Korean meeting on October 15. The minister said it is an important meeting and that Kim’s presence would interrupt it. It was not a discrimination against the defectors, he argued. But that is an insult to the 32,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. It is not different from making a blacklist, just as the former conservative administration did to exclude its opponents from government subsidy programs.
As controversy grew, the ministry explained that the defector was excluded to prevent undesirable incidents.
Even Trump wouldn’t do this, though he is notorious for frequent discriminatory remarks on race and immigration. It would be a mistake if the government believes it can earn North Korea’s heart and gain peace on the peninsula simply by trying to please North Korea. Kim Jong-un is not that different from Trump. He would not trust South Korea just because it cares for him. Let’s say we win his heart. Will we be happy? I am ashamed and scared that South Korea is being wrongly tamed by North Korea.