16 June 2005

40 Minutes with Kang

U.S. President George W. Bush’s June 13 40-minute meeting at the Whitehouse with Kang Chol Hwan (author of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang”) received almost no attention in the United States, but was noted quite readily by the South Korean press. Earlier reports that Bush was reading the book were also primarily seen in Korean media, not in the United States.

This was no accident. Bush has been using the Conservative media in the South to try to reshape the public discourse in South Korea on the North Korea issue. Washington has struggled with the change in South Korea in the past half decade from viewing North Koreans as blood-thirsty wolves that will eat school children when they invade to being sympathetic figures; brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, Koreans who just happen to have an unfortunate government. And even that government, while certainly not good, is tacitly viewed with some sense of jealousy, due to its ability to stand up to the United States and not back down.

It is little coincidence, then, that Bush met with Kang for the same 40 minutes as he met with Roh a few days earlier. The Bush administration has used such symbolism before, for example pulling approximately the same number of troops out of South Korea for duty in Iraq as Seoul was considering, but kept stalling, at the time.
For the Bush administration, the Roh presidency is little more than a constant headache, and there are already rumors milling about the halls of Beijing and Seoul that Bush is working to bring back the GNP – and his administration may have been behind the Roh impeachment procedure. While these may be extreme views, there is little doubt that Washington would prefer the GNP leadership. The blunt force of the Bush administration would only increase the Korean propensity to do whatever is opposite what Bush wants just for the sake of showing independence.

Thus Bush is trying a more subtle approach – reaching out to the South Korean populace through signs of taking an active interest in the Korean issue through his reading and meetings (and in ROK/US issues like the June 10 truck accident, something bush addressed quickly to Roh to avoid another incident like the 2002 schoolgirl accident (two views here: View 1, View 2) that triggered a series of protests and candle-light vigils).

By reshaping the discussion to be one of human rights, Bush hopes to exploit the existing sense of “Koreanism” and thus transfer sympathy for the North Koreans against the North Korean regime or any “appeasement” attempts. Will it work? Unlikely. But it is certainly worth watching.

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