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Candidates' foreign policy dilemma

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By Shim Jae-yun

The importance of an appropriate foreign policy cannot be overemphasized, especially for mid-sized countries such as Korea. History shows that such a policy is occasionally so significant as to determine the country's sustainability, and this is so for Korea due to geopolitical sensitivity, as it is surrounded by much larger, powerful nations. For leaders, a balancing act combining ideals and reality is essential. When they lack the caliber to meet this requirement, they face a serious dilemma.

Former President Roh Moo-hyun was no exception. Despite his image of being anti-American, he implemented diverse policies favorable to the United States based on the bilateral alliance, such as signing the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and dispatching Korean troops to Afghanistan, even at the cost of inviting criticism from his conventional supporters who lambasted him as a neoliberal.

While his efforts to seek inter-Korean cooperation culminated in his summit with North Korea's then-leader Kim Jong-il in 2007, he also stressed the country's firm alliance with the U.S. Here, I would like to introduce an episode that clearly shows Roh's dilemma as head of state in dealing with sensitive security issues. It was in February 2007 when the Special International Conference of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) took place in both Seoul and North Korea for a week-long run.

I was honored to play a leading role at various events of the conference, including "emceeing" the opening ceremony at a luxury hotel in downtown Seoul, with the attendance of some 500 dignitaries including President Roh, lawmakers, foreign envoys and some 150 foreign journalists from 70 countries. The events included seminars, a special lecture by former President Kim Dae-jung and tours to Mount Geumgang and the Gaeseong Industrial Complex. Throughout the conference, I moderated debates and lectures as well as guided the journalists around the North Korean sites.

In the opening ceremony for the conference, jointly hosted by the Journalists Association of Korea (JAK) and IFJ, the JAK's then-Chair Chung Il-yong took to the podium for a speech where he blasted the U.S. George Bush administration for taking a hostile policy direction toward North Korea, thus undermining the efforts toward peace on the Korean Peninsula. In strongly worded remarks, Chung accused the Bush administration of being neocons constituting an ultra-conservative force, and thus preventing peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Roh was next in giving his speech after Chung. Seemingly perplexed by Chung's statement, Roh proclaimed, "I hereby clarify that the Republic of Korea is not at all an anti-American state. We cherish our alliance with the U.S. so dearly." Later, however, Roh was found to have whispered to Chung when leaving the site, "Mr. Chung, you know well that this government is not pro-American." Chung quoted Roh as saying this during a dinner of JAK leaders, including me, after the opening ceremony.

Lee Jae-myung, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, triggered a stir by telling visiting U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff Friday that "the U.S. endorsed the forced annexation of Korea by Japan through the Taft-Katsura Agreement." Lee later expressed his thanks for the U.S.'s support of Korea, which helped Korea achieve its rapid economic growth. Yet, he invited criticism for his seemingly narrow view of history confined by the past.

Also on Friday, during a meeting with foreign correspondents active in Seoul, Yoon Seok-youl, the presidential candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, said that Seoul is free to upgrade the U.S. THAAD anti-missile system deployed here, describing it as "sovereign issue." He accented the need to solidify Korea's alliance with the U.S. Though the statement is understandable as he is a conservative candidate, his stance also aroused worries over the possibility of a deterioration of relations with China if he is elected president.

As seen in the highly tense summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Monday, the need for appropriate foreign policies is ever-growing. Both Lee and Yoon should provide concrete visions and policies with regards to external issues that will determine the country's future and its destiny. This need has become all the more significant since China's Xi has emerged stronger with his Chinese Communist Party (CCP) having adopted a recent historical resolution ― timed with the CCP's 100th anniversary ― putting him at the same level as his predecessors, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, which will lead China to seek expansion of its clout in the region and across the globe.

A stronger China is a major threat and challenge to Korea, a geographically close neighbor. Despite the urgent need to cope effectively with security issues, it is deplorable that the major presidential candidates lack concrete policies based on a firm and proper historical perception as well as philosophy. It is all the more miserable to see that the current presidential race has become a competition among candidates with a higher proportion of antipathy than of empathy.

Shim Jae-yun


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