The side-door temptation

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The side-door temptation


Kim Hyun-ki
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

“What we do is we help the wealthiest families in the United States get their kids into certain schools. So I did what I would call ‘side doors,’” William Singer explained to his customers — well-connected parents trying to find a way to send their under-qualified children to elite schools like Yale, Georgetown and Stanford by cheating on admission tests and bribing college coaches.

Singer is accused of getting 761 students into top schools by turning them into athletic talents and pocketing up to $1.2 million per deal. According to him, “There is a front door, which means you get in on your own. The back door is through institutional advancement — becoming a major donor to the college — which is 10 times as much money. And I’ve created this side door in.”

“And it works?” a parent asks in a taped conversation secured by federal investigators. “Every time,” Singer answers.

The reference to a side door reminded me of the side door Kim Yong-chol — vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of North Korea — used to get into a hotel in Washington in January to avoid encountering the press. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the same side door, through which garbage is taken out, the following day to meet the North Korean delegates to set a date for a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Both may have feared confronting the press amid lingering doubts. The two sides entered summit talks on such a vaguely-hopeful note. They did not care to coordinate the definition of denuclearization or what should or could be dismantled. They relied on the side door of a “personal rapport” between the two strong-minded heads of state. The result was the collapse of the talks. The side door did not work for the two countries.


President Moon Jae-in addresses the nation in a ceremony to mark the centennial of the March 1, 1919, Independence Movement. After the collapse of the U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, he once again underscored the need for South Korea to play a mediating role between North Korea and the United States. [AP/YONHAP]

On March 17, a senior Blue House official offered an inventive alternative of Washington and Pyongyang settling for a “small” or “a good enough deal.” He was proposing a kind of loose compromise in hopes of keeping the dialogue alive. The Blue House elaborated that it was trying to find some middle ground for the United States and North Korea.

Yet the small deal the official referred to would be no different from the phased denuclearization Pyongyang has been arguing for and Washington has opposed. Seoul was subtly pleading with Washington to compromise its “big deal” demand. Although we have little choice, our ambiguous fence-sitting has led Pyongyang to accuse Seoul of siding with Washington, and Washington to accuse Seoul of siding with Pyongyang. Unsurprisingly, Pompeo dismissed the small deal theory the next day.

The summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, underscored the fissures in the core idea of denuclearization between the United States and North Korea. Pyongyang insisted it had done its part by dismantling nuclear facilities in the Yongbyon complex, while Washington wanted a guarantee of the complete elimination of all weapons of mass destruction in writing. The side door option to avoid a head-on clash over the difference led to the disaster in Hanoi.

What the world wants from us is neither a mediating nor a supporting role: it demands Seoul confirm how genuine Pyongyang is to denuclearization. The Blue House official misunderstood Trump’s request for Seoul to persuade Pyongyang to uphold its mediating role. What difference can be made if Seoul mediates? The only idea it came up with was a “good enough deal,” which further impaired Washington’s confidence in Seoul. There is only one role President Moon Jae-in can play. He must confront Kim and ask whether his basic idea of denuclearization is at all compatible with that of the United States.

The front door may be the hardest to enter. Yet, as in college admission and everything else in life, there are rarely shortcuts available. As soon as he returned from a Southeast Asian trip, President Moon ordered law enforcement agencies to stake their reputations on solving three sex scandals from both the past and the present that involve either influential people or celebrities. Should sex scandals be such an urgent state priority? What about denuclearization? Shouldn’t that be an affair the state should stake its reputation on? When will we ever get away from our side door mentality?

JoongAng Ilbo, March 21, Page 30
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