No more Mr. Nice Guy
The author is a senior columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.
It is truly embarrassing. We are used to North Korea’s rudeness, but it is shocking to see insults flung at President Moon Jae-in, who has put earnest efforts into inter-Korean dialogue. And yet, our government is saying nothing.
This year alone, North Korea conducted seven launches to test new missiles, and South Korea is hesitant to even identify them as missiles. The South said the North did not violate the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement. But North Korea mocked South Korea by saying that Seoul has become a laughing stock for having failed to accurately analyze the ranges after the provocations.
Under such grim circumstances, Moon said, “The realization of a peace economy through inter-Korean economic cooperation will allow us to immediately catch up with Japan’s economic superiority.” But North Korea sneered. Pyongyang even said its dialogue partner is Washington, not Seoul. This is a classic example of the North’s strategy of only talking to the United States while shunning the South.
Japan no longer feels ashamed of its colonial rule of Korea and carries out economic sanctions. After South Korea introduced an anti-missile system to counter the North’s missile and nuclear threats, China carried out overt economic retaliations. A Russian military plane violated Korea’s air space, but Moscow does not apologize. U.S. President Donald Trump said he does not care about North Korea’s missiles because they are not targeting the United States.
Things appear to have gone back to 120 years ago. What happened? Do we even have a strategy? I have no idea what President Moon is thinking. He is trying to interpret North Korea’s messages in a good way as best he can. He defers a decision on how to replace the healing center for former sex slaves until all of them agree to a solution. He is a truly nice person.
But the president of a nation cannot be just a nice guy. If he hesitates and fails to send a clear message, the wrong message is delivered. There is no issue when a nice guy in the neighborhood endures problems. But if a president hesitates, the destiny of his entire country can be transformed. Moon’s vision is ambiguous. Out of the blue, he came up with the idea of defeating Japan with a “peace economy.” What is his vision for a peace economy? Is he simply talking about the fact that Korea will have a larger population after unification? Is this good enough when he is supposed to be discussing countermeasures to Japan’s economic sanctions?
When he was a presidential candidate, Moon said, “I put more value on the worst peace than the best war.” That is wise. If he really believes that, he needs to work to maintain peace by properly managing the dynamics of the region. Enduring all hardships and giving up everything is the act of a nice guy, not a president.
When the Moon administration did not protest China’s economic retaliations, the wrong signal was sent. It was a sign that Korea will cave in when it is strongly pressured. A Russian military aircraft violated our air space and Japan’s attitude has changed. Now, the government is overreacting to Japan. It overturned an existing agreement and vowed to defeat Japan. You need to strengthen a relationship with a close neighbor to make others fear you. If you attack your friend, who will want to befriend you?
So far, the United States and Japan have contacted North Korea through South Korea. But Seoul gave up the role by urging Washington and Pyongyang to deal directly with each other — without any conditions. If North Korea and the United States reach an agreement, would South Korea simply accept it? This is a situation South Korea has created. On the southern side of Panmunjom, which is our territory, only Trump and Kim Jong-un were highlighted. Kim appeared to give the impression that he is the owner of the Korean Peninsula.
Concerns are high about which direction the North-U.S. negotiations will go. Trump openly complains through Twitter that the U.S. forces on the peninsula and the joint Korea-U.S. drills are too expensive. He is demanding Seoul increase its defense cost-sharing. It is hard to imagine what compensation the United States will offer to North Korea if it agrees to surrender its inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM).
Just before the 1950-53 Korean War, the Korean Peninsula was excluded from the U.S. defense zone when the so-called Acheson Line was drawn. Over the past decades, the U.S. Forces Korea had planned a withdrawal several times, but they decided to stay because of Japan. If Japan amends its Constitution and rearms, the situation could be different. Actually, the current situation can be used as a justification for a re-armed Japan.
What does the government want by abandoning Korea-Japan-U.S. cooperation? After World War II, the UN’s order was centered on the five nuclear countries. It may seem like an era of peace, yet power does matter. North Korea is a de facto nuclear power. Do the United States and South Korea have the will to completely denuclearize North Korea?
Before its unification, Germany persuaded its neighbors. Can we persuade Japan by promoting a “reunification to beat Japan”? Will the United States agree? If we turn our back on an ally and friend, will China and Russia side with us instead of North Korea?
At the end of the Joseon era, we saw what we wanted to see. It is meaningless for us to say that the Japanese economy will soon collapse. How would Japanese people perceive our boycotts of Japanese products and burning of Japanese national flags?
The big concern is for our future generations. How much longer do we have to put the burden of the past on our young? A leader must walk at least one step ahead of his people. Where is Moon going?
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 13, Page 31
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