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Blaming an ally

Nov 22,2018
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Victor Cha, Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former White House National Security Council official, conducts an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo on October 22 in Seoul. [KIM SANG-SEON]
Kim Hyun-ki
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

On Jan. 27, Victor Cha, Korea chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, received a call from the White House. He was informed that he would not be appointed the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea. That day, H.R. McMaster, then the White House National Security Advisor, ran into CSIS President John Hamre, Cha’s boss, at a social club in Washington DC. Those present at the encounter said that McMaster vented his anger at Cha to Hamre.

What really happened?

A “bloody nose” strike on North Korea was drafted by McMaster. He pushed for it to go through, but Cha maintained a dovish stance till the end. He said it was a “dumb” idea. In retrospect, Cha’s resistance disabled the bloody nose strike on North Korea and became the driving force to convert the Trump administration’s hostile policies toward Pyongyang to the current sanctions and negotiation strategy. To South Korea, it was rather a thankful turn of events.

But today, Cha is considered a hardliner in South Korea after the CSIS released a report last week entitled “Undeclared North Korea: The Sakkanmol Missile Operating Base.” The New York Times amplified the situation by calling it “great deception.” In the United States, the Times is criticized for inaccurate reporting, but in Korea, the hidden intention of the CSIS — and Cha — is suspected. The Blue House found fault with the expression “undeclared,” and ruling party lawmaker Park Ji-won criticized Cha for being “a neocon and spokesperson for fake news.” Former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said, “Victor Cha says, it is okay to start a war and go destroy them. He is engaging in politics.” Jeong also called Cha and his fellows in the think tank a link in the food chain of the U.S. military-industrial complex. Some media supported the claim.

Is it true? I have no intention of defending Cha or CSIS, but want to clarify a factual relationship. The report was not published to interfere with the North Korea-U.S. negotiations, but as part of a Beyond Parallel program that began earlier this year. It is a report in a series of CSIS reports such as “North Korean Special Operations Forces: Hovercraft Bases,” published on January 25, and “Yongbyon Declassified Part I: Early Work on First Nuclear Research Reactor,” published on April 23.

The report clearly acknowledges that the Sakkanmol missile base was known to U.S. defense and intelligence officials since the early 1990s, according to footnote 2. The report was also the first “research” to publicize the existence of the base to the public. Whether North Korea reported it or not is not important. The author used satellite images from March to include the most vivid ones. The author of the report also admitted that the “Great Deception” title on the NYT was inappropriate.

The stance of the Moon Jae-in administration, which hopes for an easing of sanctions, is certainly different from Cha’s stance to pursue both pressure and talks. The government might not like Cha’s view and find him bothersome, but despite his swing to the right, does he really deserve to be called an agent of the military-industrial complex? How is it different from attacking someone as a “leftist” just because his or her stance is more liberal? If he was representing the interests of the military-industrial complex, why would he oppose a preemptive strike and urge negotiations, which led to Trump’s cancellation of his appointment as the U.S. ambassador to Seoul? Who among us can answer that question?

When Cha lost the position earlier this year, our foreign ministry said it was a personal matter, suggesting that the cancellation was due to a personal issue involving Cha. The ministry should have said it was the U.S. government’s decision. It misled and amplified the issue. This time is no different: they got worked up over the matter without confirming its substance. In diplomacy, when enemies need to be brought around as allies, turning allies into enemies is a great folly.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 21, Page 34