The sticky chemistry

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The sticky chemistry


Nam Jeong-ho
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush did not came empty-handed when he arrived at the 10th memorial service for late President Roh Moo-hyun, his South Korean counterpart during his two-term presidency from 2001 to 2009. He held up a painting of Roh. Bush’s art is charmingly amateurish even though he has been painting for a decade since retiring at the age of 66. His portraits of the 30 world leaders he met during his presidency “in the spirit of friendship” revealed in an exhibition at his presidential library in Texas in 2014 were deemed unimpressive and plain. A critic observed they bore the hallmarks of “outsider art.”

His 2017 works, titled “Portraits of Courage” — 98 soldiers retired with wounds from the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Bush led during his presidency — received very different reviews. A book of the paintings was a best seller. Although his drawing did not improve significantly over the years, his simplicity and straightforwardness resulted in poignant portraits. Bush sent those boys to battlegrounds in wars many had questioned. It could not have been easy to sit across from them and hear their agonizing stories. But their former commander in chief met every single one of them. Instead of glorifying them or his own deeds, Bush honored the veterans and their sacrifices with a touch of atonement.

Both Bush and Roh were straight talkers except that one was a die-hard conservative and the other a liberal. They made an odd couple. Their meetings often ended on fiery notes. The row between the two over sanctions on North Korea that lasted more than an hour during a meeting in Gyeongju in 2005 was so bad that U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow recalled it to be the worst moment of his diplomatic career.


Former U.S. President George W. Bush delivers a portrait of former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, which he himself painted, to Roh’s widow in Bongha Village, South Gyeongsang, last Thursday. [The Roh Moo-hyun Foundation]

Yet the aged president traversed the Pacific for Roh’s memorial service because he respected the late Korean president’s courage in bending his personal beliefs for the sake of national interests. He also admired his integrity and seeing through of his promises. Victor Cha, who was director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council during Bush’s time, said Bush admired Roh because unlike other leaders, Roh kept his word. French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder did not dispatch soldiers to Iraq despite promises to do so. Bush praised Roh for making a “hard” decision after Seoul announced it was sending troops to Iraq.

The decision indeed was not easy for Roh. In his memoir, he recalled that he gave the order although he was aware that he was making a “historic mistake” as a president.

The move was condemned by his loyalists for “steering right after signaling a left turn.” But Roh was a commander in chief who knew how to make a retreat for an eventual victory in a battle. His action was not in vain. Bush too made compromises. He referred to the North Korean leader as Mr. Kim Jong-il later, significantly softened from his earlier “dictator” label. He ordered the lifting of the freeze on $25 million in North Korea’s account in Banco Delta Asia, which the U.S. government sanctioned for money laundering. After the sanction was lifted, North Korea got involved in the six-party denuclearization talks.

Diplomacy is all about making compromises, but President Moon Jae-in refuses to bend. His former friend and boss Roh called him the “strongest fundamentalist I have ever known.” Even as the Korea-Japan relationship is at its worst level following the Korean Supreme Court rulings ordering Japanese companies to compensate Korean victims and families of forced labor, Moon refuses to make a diplomatic effort to clear the air, citing “the separation of three powers.” He also does not want to make any changes to his campaign promises on income-led growth and a phasing out of nuclear power despite their toll on the economy. One can lose a war if one tries to win every battle: Moon should learn some of the pragmatic ways of his old friend.
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