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A case of deja vu

The mood has strangely built up as if it were 2001 again.
June 14,2017
At 5 a.m. on March 7, 2001 — five hours before South Korean President Kim Dae-jung was due to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush — Bush called in his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and asked if she had seen the paper, according to accounts from the book “Days of Fire” by Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times. When she shook her head, he called for the paper.

Pointing to a Washington Post headline, he snapped at her, asking if he or she should solve the problem. The headline said Bush was continuing agreements between President Bill Clinton and Pyongyang that included a proposal for normalization of relations in return for suspension of North Korea’s nuclear program.

The previous day, Secretary of State Colin Powell had told the visiting South Korean leader that Washington would pick up where Clinton had left off, which was the reassurance that Kim was seeking from Bush. But the Republican president had different thoughts. The following day, Powell had to publicly admit that he had leaned “too forward in my skis.”

In his first call to Bush 40 days before his inauguration, President Kim briefed the new U.S. leader on his so-called Sunshine Policy toward Pyongyang. Bush covered the mouthpiece and asked, “Who is this naïve, old guy?” according to an account by Charles Pritchard, Bush’s North Korea envoy, in his book “Failed Diplomacy.”

But Kim, a long-time dissident before he was finally elected president, was not someone to be easily embarrassed. During a joint press conference after their summit, Kim went into a lengthy lecture on his engagement policy toward North Korea. But Bush took this personally. He publicly criticized North Korea at the presser and at one point tersely addressed his South Korean counterpart, who was old enough to be his father, as “this man.”

The Korean media faithfully covered the summit as scripted and reported that Bush supported Seoul’s engagement policy. The New York Times, though, said Bush had snubbed Kim. The developments afterward are well-known. Bush and his advisers not only shunned North Korea but also South Korea. Bush put North Korea on the “axis of evil” and went down his own path with little regard for Seoul’s policy.

I have brought up this episode from 16 years ago because the new liberal president, Moon Jae-in, is preparing to head to Washington to meet with President Donald Trump, who is as self-centered and whimsical as Bush. The timing, too, is very bad. Trump, who is notorious for his unique unpredictability, cannot be in a good mood after his former FBI chief accused him of lying and coercing him to stop a federal investigation into his campaign’s alleged ties with Russia. We cannot know what Trump will say in the upcoming talks. Moon, on the other hand, can be as serious and stubborn as former President Kim. Trump, just like Bush, hates to be preached at.

The mood has strangely built up as if it were 2001 again. President Kim at the time was fretting about losing the hard-won dialogue momentum between the two Koreas and the United States. He was overly eager. He attempted to build a rapport with dovish officials like Powell, but that only angered Bush more and made him lean decisively toward hawks in his administration like Vice President Dick Cheney.

Trump’s foreign and security team is entirely composed of hard-liners. Seoul officials have only been approaching people in Washington who will side with them. They tell us the mood is great between the two countries, but the dispute over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile shield says otherwise. When Seoul announced it was putting a hold on its full installation, citing an environmental assessment that could take one or two years, Washington explicitly became annoyed about a reversal in the decision made between the two governments to install the shield. It may now bill Seoul for the system or pull it out altogether. We just hope our new president does not get a “who’s this guy” treatment in Washington.

The eyes can deceive. On paper, the joint statement produced after the summit 16 years ago displayed a perfect alliance between two traditional allies. But the aftermath has been disastrous. Seoul must not be overly anxious. When conditions are bad, it is best to take things slowly.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 13, Page 30

*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Kim Hyun-ki