Saturday, July 26, 2003

Hot and Heavy Korean Affairs

Just when you thought the three-way was too intense for video... along comes the six-way.

[NB: Korea Herald & Korea Times links expire quickly.]

I'm not usually the type to espouse political causes, but this issue of South Korean involvement in security talks is starting to bug the hell out of me. North Korean strategy has been the same for decades: act nasty, make demands, bend over, allow own ass to be kissed, receive concessions while conceding nothing substantive.

It's time this changed. We've begun by acting nasty-- to Iraq. We have the world's undivided attention. Now we need to start making some strong demands of our own.

South Korea's presence at the table is crucial for the statement it sends to both South and North Korea. By inviting the South, the US will show that it respects its partner in defense, not as a puppet, but as a full-fledged ally (further proof will be that we continue to act on Rumsfeld's overall strategy and pull our troops southward, giving the South more of a role in its own defense). The US also sends a message to North Korea that it won't tolerate the North's sneering attitude toward the South. The Northern delegates, by having to sit across from the Southern delegates, will be tacitly acknowledging that the South is, indeed, a legitimate dialogue partner-- an equal.

If such a thing were to happen, the boost to Southern morale would be immense, I think, and it's time the South shouldered more of its own burden, anyway.

Korean lawmakers, however, are getting nervous about the US plans to scale down on the peninsula. This nervousness, which dates back a couple months, actually pleased me at first: during the presidential election, there was so much talk about Korean pride, and Noh Mu Hyon won the election because his message, which appealed to the younger folks (who came out in droves to vote), was one of PARITY with America. I was pleased, evilly pleased, when Noh Mu Hyon took office and suddenly realized he was, uh, president, and would have to face the reality that his entire country can be crossed in a single five-hour drive.


Korean sentiments ran strongly against us before and during Gulf War 2, and there's still plenty of rancor. What pleased me was that, when Rumsfeld first openly proposed scaling back in Korea, everybody here freaked. Suddenly, all that chest-puffing and "parity" rhetoric went out the window, and Noh realized he was in deep shit. Unfortunately, Noh is rather Clintonian-- not only in terms of squirrelly triangulation ("fuck the citizens! I'm in OFFICE now!"), but also in terms of being a bit too touchy-feely for a Korean man and national leader. His emotionalism is becoming something of a running joke here, but it's more than just a quirk: in my opinion, it may have played a role in his initial unwillingness to push hard for South Korean involvement in multilateral talks.

Yes, South Korea has, on several levels, been complicit in its own noninvolvement. Please understand, if you're new to Korean affairs, that this country is of many minds about how to proceed on the world stage. So much is happening here, culturally speaking, and it's happening very, very fast. I was away from Korea from 1996 to 2000. I was able to see that a lot had changed during that four-year period. (Maybe the postmodernists have a point when they observe that cultural evolution seems to be accelerating, as cultures cross-pollinate at ever-faster rates.) One of the major changes is demographic, as a younger generation with no memory of war and a healthy (over?)dose of American culture grows and matures and becomes an exciting (if often confused) new voting bloc. There's a great variety of opinion, which you can see reflected in the op-ed pages of the English-language papers, the Korea Herald and Korea Times. Some writers have argued that South Korea needs to get its house in order before it seriously contemplates being at the dialogue table. Others argue strenuously for involvement now.

Although I was initially pleased to see Noh put in his place (his rival during the election, Lee Hwae Chang, would have been a bit more sober and taken the office a tad more seriously, in my opinion), this pleasure didn't last. Noh really should have been campaigning sooner for Korean involvement in multilateral talks. North Korean insistence on strictly bilateral talks should NEVER have been acceptable to the current South Korean administration. Further, I think this administration needs to distance itself--loudly and quickly-- from the taint of the previous administration (the financial scandal in which it was discovered that North Korea was paid large sums of money by the South in exchange for the "breakthrough" North-South meeting that eventually led to Kim Dae Jung's Nobel Peace Prize [and little else]). Ex-President Kim's bribery scandal has left a bad taste in everyone's mouth.

If the six-way talks become a reality, that will be a coup. Perhaps six-way is better than three-way, in that it diffuses responsibility and softens any face-saving issues, especially for emaciated, paranoid, well-armed North Korea. But we, the US, need to insist that South Korea ALWAYS remain involved in multilateral security talks-- not just once, but EVERY time such talks occur. Though I seriously doubt that the US will ever drop completely out of this dialogue, I think it's not a bad idea to begin moving in that direction. The "parity" rhetoric was misguided only insofar as it targeted the US, when it should have been targeting North Korea.

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