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Visiting the empire

Officials in Washington will be suspiciou of the new, visiting South Korean president.
June 28,2017
Bernard-Henry Levy, known to the French as BHL, was one of the leading thinkers of the Nouveaux Philosophes or New Philosophers movement in France in the 1960s and 1970s. His youthful days were spent among the intellectuals in Paris during the tumultuous year of 1968, when Marxism was denounced and the theories of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong were worshipped. Led by the brilliantly articulate Levy, young thinkers created a violent sensation with their novel concept of merging Oriental and Western existential thoughts and challenging any form of power oppressing human freedom.

Protests targeted all traditional institutions — capitalism, American imperialism and even universities. Strikes crippled factories and the prestigious Sorbonne University was occupied by protesters. The 1968 unrest had lasting repercussions on French society, eventually leading to the resignation of President Charles de Gaulle after a 1969 referendum.

In 2004, when he was in his mid-50s, the famous American critic traveled to the United States for the first time. U.S. society was still bitter and suspicious after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The visitor put aside his European bias on the arrogance of American imperialism and its fallacy of justifying war.

His eyes observed America’s naked self — the endless, lonely roads across deserts and fields, the glamour of the cities, the brothels and slums — as well the vast diversity of mankind living amongst one another — authors, artists, politicians, movie stars and minority immigrants. He saw an America full of worships and mysteries. The outsider’s notes and philosopher’s observations were made into the book “American Vertigo.”

He concluded that America is a curious sort of empire — likening it to thick woods with thousands of hidden trails. Its invasion of Iraq, racism and fundamentalism were just some of the trails. The days of the American dream may be over, but even to the critical eyes of the French skeptic, America still maintained a greatness. There were no boundaries and limits to America. It was turning irrelevant and aging, but nevertheless drew people and influences from across the world. Despite its thick and multilayered culture and identities, America maintains one consistent value — free democracy.

President Moon Jae-in is travelling to Washington for his first state visit. He may not have been as extreme in his youth as Levy, but nevertheless resembles the 1968 generation in rebelling against dictatorship and fighting for human rights in his young days. Opposition to nuclear power, terrorism, capitalism and imperialistic powers dominated Korea’s student movements in the 1970s and 1980s.

The dissidents’ ideas were conveniently bundled up as anti-American sentiment. The rebellion against American dominance and mainstream regime — fueled by the nationalism wave that sprouted in the third world — promoted North Korea’s ideology in South Korea. North Koreans had a knack of abusing reconciliatory overtures from the South for political purposes. Anti-Americanism, Levy noted, was like a “giant magnet attracting all the most disagreeable qualities that national ideology can produce.”

Its historical relationship with the United States puts South Korea in a different position in regards to Europe. Would there be any sense of one-race among a North Korean elite living in extreme totalitarianism? North Koreans don’t think the way South Koreans do.

Officials in Washington will be suspicious of the new South Korean president, suspecting him of being anti-American. They remember former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun. Washington was confounded by Seoul’s strong response to the hasty installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system. After American college student Otto Warmbier died soon after he was freed from North Korea in a vegetative state, two U.S. B-1B bombers were deployed over the Korean Peninsula during a joint drill in a show of force.

But ordinary South Koreans remained nonchalant. Members of unions and civic groups even held a court-approved march toward the U.S. Embassy in Seoul in protest of the Thaad deployment. Their rallies calling for “Out with Thaad and In with Peace” would have reached the ears of people in Washington. Will peace arrive if Thaad is removed?

President Moon will be pressed to give a clear answer on Thaad when he arrives in Washington. Caught between the two global powers, he won’t be able to walk away with ambiguity. Pyongyang appears to be beyond Beijing’s control. U.S. President Donald Trump won’t be approving the so-called Moonshine policy, or the South Korean president’s version of the Sunshine Policy of former liberal president Kim Dae-jung, when Pyongyang remains provocative with its missile launches.

The skeptical businessman-turned-president would call Koreans’ one-race sentiment a delusion. Stalling the full deployment of the Thaad system because the original plan was to bring one launcher by the end of this year and the remaining five the following year should not be an excuse to Trump, who is used to clear-cut answers. Moon instead should invite them all at once, but nevertheless make U.S. officials understand the tough position Korea is in.

Seoul is unable to find a balance between its historical relationship with China and military alliance with the U.S. But persuading Chinese President Xi Jinping is less urgent. Restoring a historical alliance with Beijing could be less hard as history does not change.

One inscription in the Pool of Remembrance at the Korean War Memorial section of Arlington National Cemetery reads, “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and people they never met.”

In the war, 54,246 Americans died, 8,177 went missing in action, and 389 are unaccounted for prisoners of wars. Even if the U.S. involvement was motivated by its own national interests, we cannot forget our indebtedness to Americans for our well-being today.

Before Moon goes for his first test at White House, he should stop by Arlington cemetery. Or he could briefly stop to pay his respect to the grave of Warmbier in Cincinnati and his mourning family. He would be able to find a better answer there.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 27, Page 31

*The author, a sociology professor at Seoul National University, is a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Song Ho-keun