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Few impressed by Roh’s diplomacy

By Jaewoo Choo, Asia Times, 10 June 2003

SEOUL—On Monday, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun returned home from his second summit meeting, this time with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. After a four-day ordeal that included dinner with Japanese Emperor Akihito, meeting with the Japanese business group Keidanren, and a speech at the Japanese (Diet) parliament, Roh once again found himself facing severe criticism from his own people over his handling of a foreign summit.

His trip this time is judged by Korean conservatives to have lacked goals and purposes. Surprisingly, even liberals are not too happy with his actions and words on the issues concerning the Japanese perception of the history of the bilateral relationship, as the two leaders agreed to avoid the issue in their talks and to concentrate on those of mutual concern in the context of Northeast Asia.

What is Roh doing wrong to attract such harsh criticism every time he ventures abroad? Why is it that all his diplomatic actions and words are viewed by his peer Koreans as disgracing the nation? Is he losing his authority and leadership over his conduct of the nation’s foreign affairs? Is he really incapable in conducting diplomacy, a concern that was raised during the presidential elections last year (see Into the maelstrom: President Roh, February 26)?

Despite the criticism, Roh claimed his visit to Japan over the weekend a success, having achieved what he had in mind. There were two major accomplishments, according to Roh. One was to clarify what Koizumi and US President George W Bush meant by a possibility of tougher measures against North Korea, so as to soothe the concern that statement provoked among the South Korean people. The other achievement was to seek support from the Japanese business and governmental leaders with respect to South Korea’s pursuit of status as a Northeast Asian hub for business, logistics and finance.

In the end, the meeting was certainly a success in one aspect, that is in getting beyond South Korea’s obsession with the past, which has always hindered the development of its bilateral relationship with Japan. This time, both leaders wanted to achieve something that their predecessors had not: to move toward the future instead of dwelling on the past. While the way for a future orientation had been paved in 1998 by their predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Keizo Obuchi, it was the present leaders’ own characteristics and personality that carried it off. Roh and Koizumi are respected by their own people for their outward-looking and future-oriented philosophies. As well, Roh is the first South Korean president to visit Japan who never experienced the 36-year Japanese imperial rule of Korea that ended in 1945. As much by their desire as by their personality, the two leaders were able to utilize the occasion to get a better understanding of each other’s position and perception on the current problems concerning their nations’ interests as pre-arranged by their aides.

So why is that the South Korean people are not satisfied with Roh’s accomplishments in Japan? Is he under a scrutiny for his game of changing his words and attitude toward a nation just before he visits it, as he did with the United States almost a month ago (see Roh and Bush: Leopard changes its spots, May 20)? Not this time. Unlike his first overseas trip almost a month ago, Roh’s trip to Japan was troubling from the beginning. First, he was very much criticized for originally scheduling his meeting with the Emperor for June 6, which is National Memorial Day in South Korea. Such scheduling, maybe by his aides and advisors under his approval, was simply unacceptable to the memory of those who gave their lives for Korea’s independence from Japanese imperial rule. Against the widespread criticism, Roh had no choice but to postpone his banquet with the Emperor to the next day.

In addition, Roh’s arrival in Tokyo ironically conflicted with the passing of Japan’s new National Security Law, the so-called contingency bills, which would, by any and all legal means, guarantee much greater freedom for the Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF) to engage in overseas military affairs in the future. The effect of the law will have great implications to the international order of East Asia as well as Southeast Asia, not to mention to the SDF’s activities in defending its own state against a dormant threat from North Korea. Pyongyang’s cautious move against possible SDF action has already surfaced in the cancellation notification to the Japanese authorities last Sunday of a passenger and cargo ship’s visit to Niigata, a Japanese port to which the ship, Man Gyong Bong Ho-92, has been a regular visitor for the past few years. It had been alleged that the vessel was being used to deliver parts and ingredients vital to North Korea’s missile program, and had been targeted for an inspection by the Japanese authorities during its next docking there.

In general, there was little understanding in South Korea of what the purpose of Roh’s visit to Japan was. Did he intend to seek cooperation on North Korea? Or was he looking for further cooperation on other issues—a free-trade agreement, visas, Korean-Japanese civil rights, opening of a cultural market and shuttle flights between the old airports of the two nations, Kimpo and Haneda? But the set of goals that Roh had in mind was in the end simply put forward for later discussion without mentioning even a general guideline. The two leaders merely agreed to promote talks with respect to these issues.

To Roh’s dismay, Koizumi had different interests in mind for the talks. This became obvious when he ordered his government and the Diet to start reviewing a bill for his nation’s action in Iraq on the very day he was to meet with Roh, and when he referred to the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents as an act of terrorism. As if in an attempt to deliver his message more forcefully, he made these remarks immediately upon his return from the Group of Eight (G8) meeting last week. Koizumi’s words may be attributed to his understanding of the support his nation may get for its role in solving the North Korean problems as indicated at his summit with Bush and subsequent meetings with the leaders of the G8. He further consolidated this recognition by expressing his differences with Roh on the handling of North Korea. While both leaders, at least in principle, agreed to the simultaneous use of dialogue and pressure, Roh placed a greater emphasis on the former and Koizumi on the latter in a close cooperation among the United States, South Korea and Japan. By publicly stating his position at the news conference after the Roh summit, Koizumi made it quite obvious that there is a big gap in the pair’s thinking of handling the North.

In other words, Koizumi, as a leader of a world-class nation, wanted an understanding, and possibly a consensus, from Roh for his future way of handling North Korean problems. It would not be merely denuclearizing the nation. It would extensively focus on a much broader variety of issues concerning the North. All the allegations and charges against the North by Japanese agencies as well as the international community would be subject for inspection and investigation by Seoul or Tokyo.

Thus, in the foreseeable future, we are going to see Japan adopting a much more aggressive and assertive stance in the process of handling North Korean issues. Investigation on the abduction issue will be carried out in much more detail. Inspection of North Korean ships will be backed up by the Self-Defense Naval Force (SDNF) as well as law-enforcement agencies if they are suspected of espionage. Drug trafficking will be another issue over which Japan will put much more pressure on the North. While Japan and other nations are gearing their efforts toward an omni-directional fight against North Korea, the South is gradually fading from the global picture.

Again, in the machine of international politics in which South Korea is but a small cog, it is failing to grasp the gist of the movements by the greater cogs surrounding it (see How to drag out the US-Korea talks, April 23). It is time for Roh and his foreign-affairs advisors to view more objectively the intentions and purposes of the recent developments around the Korean Peninsula. Otherwise, South Korea will find itself out of code with others, a popular expression that Roh often uses when describing opposition to his ideology, beliefs, values and philosophy.

There are already signs of a split developing in South Korea’s perceptions and those of the rest, for instance regarding North Korean fishing vessels crossing the Northern Limit Line (NLL) as an attempt to raise tension, while others perceive the action as a mere attempt at survival—looking for food during the crab season (see Korea: Awkward anniversaries, June 4).