The elephant in the room

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

The elephant in the room


Kang Chan-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

“You are going to the United States next week, and the conservatives are worried. It seems that you are asking U.S. President Trump to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un again. Conservatives are also worried about inter-Korean summits. How about easing the conservatives’ concerns by holding a South-North-U.S. summit?” asked Chung Un-chan, a former prime minister, who attended a luncheon hosted by President Moon Jae-in on economic issues earlier this month.

But Chung said Moon did not answer his question. Chung said, “Everyone was talking about the economy, but as I had been a prime minister, I mentioned security, which was not on the agenda. And the president did not respond. Probably, he wasn’t ready,” said Chung. His words are correct. A leader reveals their true colors when asked an unexpected question. Moon would have given some answers if he really had a conviction about the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

In the second year of the Moon administration, the South Korea-U.S. alliance is in a serious crisis. The April 11 South-U.S. summit ended without a joint statement after a fleeting two-minute “one-on-one” meeting. U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris said he did not know what the “intermediate stage of denuclearization” referred to was. He said Seoul did not share that information with him. The U.S. ambassador, whose main job is to say nice words, expressed discontent toward the South Korean government. That is where the South-U.S. relationship stands.

I understand the government’s desire to speed up inter-Korean exchanges after jumping over one particular hurdle, international sanctions on North Korea. But it would be the end of the game if the United States opposes it. Like it or not, that is the fate of South Korea. It must approach North Korea based on the decades-old South-U.S. alliance.

When President Kim Dae-jung prepared for the June 14, 2000, inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, he instructed his right-hand man and cultural minister Pak Ji-won to “convey every breath in the field to the United States.” North Korea Policy Coordinator Wendy Sherman visited Seoul the month before and asked Park to have some wine with her. Park drank and told Sherman about all the progress in the meeting’s arrangements and key information on North Korea. Sherman was pleased to hear crucial information from South Korea. She did not come by herself. Two U.S. intelligence agents were seated behind her, writing down every word Park uttered. When Park returned to the Blue House drunk, President Kim Dae-jung complimented his performance.


President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un raise their hands on top of Mount Paektu after their third summit in North Korea on Sept. 20 last year. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

Both then and now, North Korea looks only to the United States and does not keep South Korea in mind. Seoul’s words count for Pyongyang only when Washington trusts Seoul, giving them weight. President Kim Dae-jung knew it well and tried to please Washington: and it worked. Bill Clinton, the U.S. president at the time, became a solid supporter of President Kim. During the Clinton administration, Kim’s sunshine policy went smoothly.

The Moon Jae-in administration does the opposite: It says it prioritizes the alliance, but acts otherwise. The United States surely knows it. A ruling party insider who met with a U.S. intelligence officer told me that he knew all about the situation and conversations in the Blue House. The officer also told him that Washington did not trust the Blue House.

The intelligence network of the United States is scary. Conversations among key government officials reach Washington after only a few days. When discussing North Korean issues in the Blue House, President Kim used to write on a white board quietly. But when a decision was made, he conveyed it to the United States in every way he could, every breath of it. He thought it was impossible to deceive the United States and that he could only attain his own goals when Uncle Sam was on his side.

Liberal President Roh Moo-hyun once said it was OK to be anti-American, but he studied how many ways the United States could retaliate if South Korea turned against it. It was learned that there were more than 50 ways the United States could shake South Korea. For instance, if the United States suspends its supply of satellite information on North Korea, South Korea’s military strength would become nothing. Surprised, President Roh turned to the stance of “utilizing the United States.”

Moon must abandon his stance of prioritizing North Korea and follow Kim Dae-jung’s wisdom to restore the South-U.S. relations. Only then will South Korea be empowered, and only then will North Korea listen to President Moon. Japan and China, which have been neglecting Moon, would also change their attitudes.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 25, Page 29
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)