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A crucial opportunity

Dec 12,2018
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A painting of a handshake between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at one of their three summits this year is placed in front of the guesthouse in the Blue House on Dec. 9. [JOONGANG PHOTO]
이미지뷰
Nam Jeong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Visiting an enemy state takes bold determination for a leader. It is a bold move to enter a place filled with people who hate you. Sudden reconciliation with a figure that had been demonized before can bring strong internal resistance.

But there have been leaders that surprised the world by dashing into the enemy camp. A notable case is that of Nikita Khrushchev, who travelled to the United States for two weeks in September 1959. His appearance — and open-mindedness — resemble North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s. The FBI estimated that there were over 20,000 people in the United States who wanted to hunt him down. But he insisted on seeing the true face of the United states and asked U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower for an invitation.

Khrushchev was 160 centimeters (5 feet 3 inches) tall and weighed over 90 kilograms (198 pounds). When he arrived, Americans mocked him for his appearance. However, they found him witty and humorous. When he met U.S. Senators, he said they needed to get used to communism, as “the wart is there, and I can’t do anything about it.” After having a hot dog, he said that the Soviet Union was better at space travel, but that the United States was better at making sausages. Wherever he went, more than 100 reporters followed. His every word and move made the news. Towards the end of the tour, Americans’ antagonism towards the Soviet Union subsided considerably, and optimism for peace spread.

But the reality was different. After Khrushchev’s visit, U.S.-Soviet relations aggravated to the worst-possible level. They were on the verge of a nuclear war following the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

But there was a visit with a happy ending, too — U.S. President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972. When he arrived at the airport in Beijing, Nixon was greatly disappointed that there was no welcoming crowd. However, the historic trip beyond the bamboo curtain led to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and China six years later after over two decades of estrangement.

How were they different? In Khrushchev’s case, he left a good impression, but could not change the competition for hegemony between the superpowers. But when Nixon visited China, the United States and China needed to join forces against their mutual enemy: the Soviet Union. After all, one leader’s visit to an enemy state cannot change the greater flow of politics.

It is unclear whether North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will visit South Korea within the calendar year. But whenever he comes, scenes similar to Khrushchev’s U.S. visit will likely be staged: the media will be impressed by his down-to-earth charm and South Koreans may be hypnotized en masse to believe that unification is near.

But, as was the case during Khrushchev’s time, Kim’s visit will not get rid of a single nuclear weapon. The lesson of history is that we should not forget the cold reality after being enchanted by Kim’s visit.

It may be good for the Moon administration that Kim’s visit is being delayed. His trip to South Korea is guaranteed to be a great success.
When Khrushchev visited the United States, Eisenhower’s approval rating went up by 10 percent. But the effect of the return visit is not just one-time magic: as the public gets tired easily, Kim’s visit will not be very different.

The return visit should be considered carefully. A good card needs to be saved to be used at the perfect moment. For example, if North Korea’s denuclearization is in full swing — and if it needs South Korea’s economic assistance — this would be the best time to use the card.

But now is not the right time, as there are few signs that the recalcitrant regime is ready to change. If our government wastes this significant event to win political points, it is committing an irreparable sin.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 11, Page 30