Why The World Needs South Korean Diplomacy To Succeed
August 01, 2005
The following is adapted from a presentation I gave during the colloquium portion of the Korea-U.S. Journalists’ Exchange Program at the East-West Center on August 1.
This being the first-ever Korea-U.S. Journalists’ Exchange, I’m honored to be the first speaker. The importance of the lead-off batter was reinforced when I attended a Doosan Bears vs. Samsung Lions baseball game on my last night in Seoul, and I will do my best to get us off to a good start.
In conducting preparatory research before visiting Korea, I was reminded that point of view is everything, or at least much it. Just look at the varying views and interests of the parties in the current Six-Party Talks — South Korea, North Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.
Traveling in Korea emphasized for me that point of view is not just an intellectual viewpoint. Rather, the truest sense of the term is the one utilized by screenwriters in scripts, “POV” indicating a camera angle showing a particular character’s perspective from a specific time and place.
Indeed, spending 10 days in Korea with my fellow U.S. Fellows — and I might add that I arrived one day early and ended up between a thousand or so black-clad riot cops and several hundred flag-waving civilians in a street demonstration — certainly changed my POV on several counts.
They include relations between South Korea and North Korea, the topic I’ve been asked by my U.S. colleagues to address today.
Before our visit, my view was very U.S.-centric. No apologies, just the way it is. From the start of the Korean War in 1950 until now, I doubt that you can find many people in the U.S. who have not had a relative, friend, classmate or neighbor serve in Korea. The nation, for many Americans, is a one-degree-of-separation personal issue.
But my POV is also very Hawaii-centric. Our little archipelago suffered more casualties in the Korean War per capita than any other state. Visit Punchbowl, our National Cemetery of the Pacific, and you’ll walk through literally acres of graves marked simply “Unknown — Korea.” More currently, North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il has said he can reach Honolulu, along with cities on the U.S. West Coast, with nuclear weapons.
My POV began to change — and I suppose this is what these East-West Center exchange programs are all about — on our first day of interviews in Seoul. Mr. Park Chan-Bong of the Reunification Ministry, one of two men we interviewed who would be part of the Six-Party Talks just a couple of days later, spoke softly but strongly, and obviously from the heart, when he said “There is no reason for anyone to oppose reunification” of North and South Koreas. He pointed out that Korea was a unified nation from the year 676 until it was divided roughly along the 38th Parallel by the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the end of World War II in 1945 — unified for over 1.300 years, divided for just 60.
And it occurred to me then that we know a human parallel to South Korea’s quest for reunification. And she’s sitting right here. Courtnay Peifer, our U.S. colleague, as you may know, and her twin sister were born in Korea and adopted by a Minnesota family as toddlers. Courtnay’s search for her Korean family is that parallel.
It’s a subject on which Courtnay has written eloquently and powerfully. There were times, she says, when they doubted that their search would ever bear fruit.
Park Chan-Bong echoed those sentiments for the nation, I believe, in saying, “When I joined this ministry five years ago, I hoped we’d be further along by now … I try to practice the virtue of patience.”
But Courtnay’s search finally did pay off a couple of years ago, and we were fortunate to visit her family at their farm on Daebu-do (Daebu island) southeast of Seoul. The photo I took of Courtnay and her grandfather is precious, and proof of the contented fulfillment of reunification. My most powerful memory of that day — even more than the wonderfully spicy grilled octopus, kim chee fried rice and noodle soup to which her family treated us, or the tasty homemade wine her aunt makes from homegrown grapes — is the complete joy
that filled the house upon Courtnay’s return.
Coutnay Peifer and her grandfather at
the family farm on Daebu-do
So this is how I came to see South Korea’s dream of reunification, as a family matter.
And it’s a lovely comparison for South Korea’s reaching out to a bully cousin that has enough weapons lined up along the DMZ — conventional as well as chemical and biological — and aimed at Seoul barely 30 miles away to decimate the city of 11 million hard-working souls in minutes. In fact, in the policy of reunification, I see elements of the three major faiths of South Korea:
• the compassion of Buddha.
• the turn-the-other-cheek attitude of Jesus.
• the absolute respect for family relations of Confucius.
But there’s more to it than good karma, of course.
In the new economic zone at Gaeseon, North Korea, where South Korean businesses use low-cost North Korean labor and introduce modern industry to the Hermit Dictatorship; in the Gungan Mountain Resort, where non-North Koreans can visit North Korea, and in cultural exchanges such as the upcoming Liberation Day (Aug. 15) soccer matches between North and South, and certainly in the South’s offer to provide electricity and food for the North, I see a shrewd pragmatism.
Or as an official at the U.S. embassy in Seoul told us: “The South Koreans have made an economic evaluation of what reunification means.”
Park Chan-Bong affirmed this, speaking of achieving a “positive sum” and convincing younger generations in the South, who have grown up knowing only two Koreas, of the long-term value of reunification (while hopefully avoiding the reunification woes suffered by the former West Germany when the communist East collapsed).
Again, I see Mr. Park’s POV. Eight million people in the South have relatives in the North. Then there are those 1,300 years of unity.
Still, from my red-white-and-blue POV — and this is one shared by many Americans, including high-ranking officers on the staff of the Commander-U.S. Pacific Command at Camp Smith who briefed me before I left for Korea — Korea is offering lots of carrots and no sticks. Or in Buddhist terms, no consequences. I’m reminded of the words of our President Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” South Korea is certainly speaking softly — and perhaps most important, with respect — but those riot cops I saw on the streets of Seoul carried far bigger sticks than any offered by the South’s “Sunshine Policy” toward the North.
One place I’d like to see more stick applied is on the issue of North Korea’s many human rights abuses. Just as the U.S. largely ignored the human rights abuses of Singman Rhee, South Korea’s first president who had led the independence movement from Hawaii during Japan’s brutal occupation of Korea from 1910 to ‘45, and the iron-fist military dictators who followed him in ruling South Korea in its early decades, so too is South Korea now ignoring the equally criminal and inhumane abuses committed by Kim Jung-Il’s regime.
The biggest stick, though, must be used to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
And it is here that I see a much higher hope for South Korea’s reunification policy:
A person we can refer to only as a “very high ranking official at the U.S. embassy” told us, “South Koreans are very highly skilled at diplomacy.”
And certainly he’s right — through diplomacy the South has been able to bring Kim Jung-Il back to the bargaining table at the Six-Party Talks.
This has been no easy task in dealing with a neighbor, a cousin, which a Korea expert at Camp Smith refers to as a “mafia regime” for it’s involvement in the trafficking of humans, drugs and arms, and the production of counterfeit currencies (at which it excels).
But South Korea diplomacy has achieved what many thought impossible, not just bringing the North back to the table, but also creating for the first time since 1945 a growing sense of trust on the Korean Peninsula.
Perhaps there’s no greater sign of Korea’s diplomacy potential than the behind-the-scenes work of Park Sun-Won, senior director of the Office of Strategic Planning at the National Security Office. The other gentleman we met who would be part of the Six-Party Talks, he briefed us at the Blue House — South Korea’s White House — press center. Although Mr. Park was too modest to say so, he was the one who, before his Foreign Secretary met with Kim Jong-Il, asked him to urge the North’s dictator to refer to President Bush for the first time as “Mr. Bush.” Similarly, he suggested to President Roh Moo-hyun that during his June visit to Washington he ask Bush and Vice President Cheney to tone down the hawkish axis-of-evil rhetoric. Both Bush and Kim followed through, and thus were both lured back to the Six-Party Talks and — perhaps more important — to bilateral talks behind the scenes.
On such small building blocks can a peace be constructed.
And that is why I think diplomacy could be the greatest export of the “Korean Wave” — far more important than all the Korean TV soaps and dramas, more than all the cool technology of Samsung.
One day, I hope, the world will look back from the perspective of a unified, democratic Korea and remember South Korean diplomacy as one of the positive forces for peace in the early 21st Century. It certainly has that potential — one carrot, one stick, one changed POV at a time.
I hate to think of the consequences of South Korea’s dual Sunshine/Reunification policies not succeeding.
In addition to this presentation I gave on relations between North and South Korea during the colloquium portion of the Korea-U.S. Journalists’ Exchange Program at the East-West Center, a three part series that was published in MidWeek is also posted at www.midweek.com under MidWeek’s Editor in Korea, as are more photos.
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