[Update: As I had figured, only video really does it justice. Just watch the body language and Bush’s expression. And for that matter, Roh’s. Roh certainly has used his presidency to perfect a sublime aura of idiocy. It’s hard for me to imagine that South Korean voters will be impressed if their media ever decide to cover this story. There definitely isn’t much love in that room. Click the image.
Update 1 continued below, with an AP report that does a better job of reporting the dialogue and putting it in context.]
[Update 2: A full transcript of the photo op at the end of this post. My sincere thanks to the reader who sent this.]
[Update 3: I try and fail to explain why the Korean papers aren’t reporting this, regardless of their ideology. Maybe you can explain this. Is it Korean pride? Censorship? Just not that big a deal to Koreans? None of those theories makes sense to me.]
[Update 4: This site’s peerless commenters, several of whom are fluent Korean speakers, report that what Roh actually said to Bush was almost universally mistranslated to airbrush out most of the venom. Roh’s actual words were more like, “You keep saying the same thing…. Chairman Kim Jong Il and the Korean people are waiting to hear more from you,” or “Same story. Same story, Chairman Kim Jong-il and the South Korean people want to hear a different story. See also this post at DPRK Studies. So apparently, Kim Jong Il is the only man in North Korea who is represented by an elected politician.]
In a testy public exchange Friday with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, President Bush said the United States would formally end the Korean War only when North Korea halts its nuclear weapons program. [AP, Tom Raum]
Does a public argument between two lame duck presidents qualify for a DOA post? Admittedly, it’s marginal, but this would have been unthinkable five years ago, and it says much about the migration of South Korean public attitudes that Roh would see any profit in this. Roh may be many things, but he’s not stupid, and he’s completely capable of keeping his differences with Bush, Kim Jong Il, Hu Jin Tao, or anyone else private. For obvious reasons, Roh chose to have them out in the open instead.
[Bush and Roh] agreed there had been progress. But then they had a before-the-cameras back-and-forth that was remarkable in the diplomatic world of understatement and subtlety.
Roh pushed Bush to be “clearer” about his position on an official end to the 1950-53 Korean War. The two Koreas were divided by the conflict, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, meaning they still remain technically at war.
The leaders’ tone remained light, but Bush responded firmly: “I can’t make it any more clear, Mr. President. We look forward to the day when we can end the Korean War. That will happen when Kim Jong Il verifiably gets rid of his weapons programs and his weapons.”
No matter what you may think of Bush — and I’ve been very critical of his Korea policy recently — he seems to have handled this with statesmanlike maturity and a self-discipline that I do not possess (more below on how I would have reacted). If only I had more faith in the sincerity of what Bush actually said. For Roh, this is a new low in boobery.
The tense moments with Roh came as the leaders each made statements to reporters after their meeting. Roh concluded his by questioning why Bush hadn’t mention the issue of the war’s end.
“I might be wrong. I think I did not hear President Bush mention a declaration to end the Korean War just now,” Roh said through an interpreter. “Did you say so, President Bush?”
“It’s up to Kim Jong Il,” Bush said. Roh pressed on. “If you could be a little bit clearer,” he said, prompting nervous laughter from the U.S. delegation and a look of annoyance from Bush.
Instead, the White House said, “There was clearly something lost in translation during the photo op.” If you say so.
For its part, Yonhap did a Rodong Sinmun-quality job of airbrushing all of the unpleasantness out of the story, making no reference to the disagreement and publishing only language to suggest to its readers how peachy things must be:
Friday’s Roh-Bush meeting, the eighth South Korea-U.S. summit during Roh’s term, lasted over 70 minutes in a “very friendly and warm atmosphere,” presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-seon said, noting Bush called Roh his friend during the talks. [Yonhap]
It goes on to report cheerfully that the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the free trade agreement and visa waiver, and if you think the odds of either item just improved at this meeting, you need to take a closer look at the fine print that came with your medications. Those are two items that (1) have some hope of being achieved, and (2) would have a significant impact on the lives of many South Koreans. And with the crew that’s running the State Department these days, maybe a completely premature and unrealistic peace treaty is also possible. But how many of those goals have been advanced by Roh’s choice of tactics, which have nothing to do with diplomacy and everything to do with the short-term domestic political goal of showing the voters how Roh stands up to the Yankees?
Surely South Korea has differences with China — or should have — but we didn’t see such an adolescent display when Roh met Hu Jin Tao last week. When it comes to South Korea’s discussions with China and North Korea, the Blue House blows smoke about “quiet diplomacy” and leaves it up to us to infer that it’s exercising responsible statecraft and thinking of the interests of, say, thousands of its abducted citizens, even when reality supports no such inference. Can anyone still argue that South Korea is an ally of the United States to any greater extent than dozens of other nations we merely refer to as “trading partners?”
Which only causes me to wonder just what will be revealed of the rest of the Il Shim Hue spy ring story after the new crew takes over the Blue House. Surely the shredding crew will miss something (more fuel for that speculation here). And it wouldn’t be South Korea if the ex-president wasn’t disgraced (and quite probably, imprisoned).
Had it been me instead of Bush — please suspend your darkest fears for a moment — I would have been unable to resist the temptation to respond just about like this:
You’re absolutely right, President Roh. You’ve convinced me that tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been reduced so much by your highly effective diplomacy with North Korea that I’m pleased to announce that all U.S. ground forces will be out of Korea by the end of my term. Furthermore, I’m asking Secretary Gates to conduct a full BRAC review of all other U.S. forces in Korea.
The United States has interests beyond any differences over the DMZ. Our own problems with North Korea will continue as long as Kim Jong Il continues to perfect the means to destroy entire cities, and as long as he shows such a disregard for human life that moral restraint clearly does not prevent him from doing that, or from selling those weapons to others who would. We will give Kim Jong Il until the end of this year to verifiably and completely comply with his agreement to disarm. And if he doesn’t, the severe consequences for his misrule will begin with the overnight destruction of the palace economy that sustains his military, his weapons programs, and his luxurious lifestyle. And not even the aid that Mr. Roh provides to Kim Jong Il will be immune. Good day.
* “Material Support” Update:
Both news agencies cited remarks by a member of the 10-man leadership council of the Taliban, which are headed by the elusive Mullah Omar. “With it we will purchase arms, get our communication network renewed and buy vehicles to carry out more suicide attacks,” the senior militant figure told Reuters. “The money will also address to some extent the financial difficulties we have had. [Chosun Ilbo]
Another lawmaker pressured him further, asking if it is normal for the National Intelligence Service budget to be used to pay ransoms when a hostage crisis occurs. “I cannot answer the question, because it could amplify the doubt,” Kim said. Asked what he will do if it is later revealed that the budget was actually used for such a payment, Kim said, “I will assume legal responsibility.
You will recall that the current NIS head is a political hack who was installed to hush up the Il Shim Hue spy scandal, something his predecessor refused to do. I’ll say it again: freeze their assets. And for purposes of our relationship with South Korea, helping people to kill our soldiers is simply not forgiveable.
* The ex-Uri United National Democratic Party has broken into open internecine warfare over a poll I reported two days ago showing Sohn Hak-Kyu in the lead among its candidates. We are now two months from a general election. In politics and construction alike, events move with amazing swiftness in South Korea, but I can’t see how they’re going to have time to unite behind one candidate in two months. Their situation seems hopeless. Good.
* DPRK Forum, which has now fast-tracked its way to my “best” aggregator, has a quaint North Korean propaganda video featuring coquettish maidens in a bucolic farm village musing about the misery of every place that isn’t North Korea. It’s an excellent example of why the regime cannot survive without isolation. It comes by way of Songun Blog, which I refuse to believe is not a parody site, although the consensus seems to be that it isn’t.
* Japan and North Korea have ended talks in Mongolia without resolution. The talks focused on the abductions issue, with the AP quoting a Japanese negotiator as saying that “[T]he North Koreans had refused to take action.” The State Department will call it progress that the North Koreans didn’t simply walk out this time. But Japanese citizens are still held captive in North Korea, and even Japanese people living in Japan still have to live in fear of becoming the next victims. North Korea’s main demand, naturally, is money. Although it links the two issues, North Korea prefers to call it “reparations,” not ransom. This, of course, is a transparent lie that serves denial of the fact that keeping these victims in unjust captivity is terrorism, plain and simple. That’s true regardless of what motivated the original kidnappings.
Update 1, Continued:
Bush said that during his talks with Roh, he reaffirmed the U.S. position that Washington will consider the war formally over only when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il actually dismantles his nuclear program.
Whatever Roh heard Bush say through his translator, it wasn’t good enough.
“I think I did not hear President Bush mention the — a declaration to end the Korean War just now,” Roh said as cameras clicked and television cameras rolled.
Bush said he thought he was being clear, but obliged Roh and restated the U.S. position.
That wasn’t good enough either. “If you could be a little bit clearer in your message,” Roh said.
Bush, now looking irritated, replied: “I can’t make it any more clear, Mr. President. We look forward to the day when we can end the Korean War. That will end — will happen when Kim verifiably gets rid of his weapons programs and his weapons.”
The White House immediately downplayed the testy exchange and said the meeting went smoothly.
“There was clearly something lost in translation,” National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a rushed e-mail to reporters.
“I really think the interpreter must not have conveyed the president’s comments entirely clearly,” Johndroe said. “The president made clear in his opening remarks that he told Roh that the U.S. is committed to a peace agreement once North Korea complies.”
And despite Roh’s challenge for Bush to make a declaration to end the war, the war was not between the United States and the North but between the North and the United Nations, and Bush alone could not end the war with a simple declaration. “As we say, ‘all parties involved,’ ” Johndroe said, when asked about the mechanics of achieving a peace treaty. [AP, Deb Reichmann]
]The latter point being a valid one until you consider the U.N.’s irrelevance, which is much aggravated by the fact of who leads it. End Update 1.]
Update 2 to main post, continued with a Bush-Roh transcript:
BUSH: Mr. President, thank you for your time. As usual, we had a very friendly and frank discussion about important matters. We discussed our bilateral relations, which are very strong. And we thank you for your contributions to helping young democracies, such as Iraq.
But we spent a lot of time talking about the six-party talks and the progress that is being made in the six-party talks. I understand you’re having a summit with the leader of North Korea, and I appreciate the fact that you will urge the North Korean leader to continue to adhere to the agreement that he made with us.
And in our discussions I reaffirmed our government’s position that when the North Korean leader fully discloses and gets rid of his nuclear weapons programs, that we can achieve a new security arrangement in the Korean Peninsula, that we can have the peace that we all long for. You and I discussed the Northeast Peace and Security agreement — arrangement, which we support.
And so I’m optimistic. There’s still more work to be done. But nevertheless, Mr. President, when we have worked together we have shown that it’s possible to achieve the peace on the Korean Peninsula that the people long for.
So thank you, sir.
ROH: (As translated.) As President Bush has stated, we had a very constructive discussion on six-party talks and the North Korean nuclear issue, as well as other bilateral issues between our two countries.
Before we discussed these issues I reaffirmed my support for President Bush and his policies and efforts in Iraq to bring peace. I also thanked the President for his efforts in the visa waiver program — for his constructive position on this issue.
We both agreed on the positive outlook for the six-party talks. We believe that this progress is very meaningful. And I also thanked President Bush for his resolve to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asian region, for making a strategic decision to bring peace to the region through dialogue.
As is outlined in the 2005 September 19th joint statement, we have a plan for the peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and President Bush also reaffirmed in November of last year in Vietnam of his willingness and his resolve to end the Korean War officially, once and for all. Today we revisited this issue. President Bush reaffirmed his determination to replace the current status in the Korean Peninsula with a permanent peace regime, and he stressed that he would be proceeding with this move after the North Korean nuclear issue is resolved.
We also share the view that should there be more progress in the six-party process, this will be followed by talks to initiate a Northeast Asian regional security mechanism. I also reassured President Bush that the inter-Korean summit will underpin the progress at the six-party talks, that relations — the inter-Korean relations and the six-party talks should be a mutually reinforcing relationship.
I think I might be wrong — I think I did not hear President Bush mention the — a declaration to end the Korean War just now. Did you say so, President Bush?
BUSH: I said it’s up to Kim Jong-il as to whether or not we’re able to sign a peace treaty to end the Korean War. He’s got to get rid of his weapons in a verifiable fashion. And we’re making progress toward that goal. It’s up to him.
ROH: I believe that they are the same thing, Mr. President. If you could be a little bit clearer in your message, I think…
BUSH: I can’t make it any more clear, Mr. President. We look forward to the day when we can end the Korean War. That will end — will happen when Kim Jong-il verifiably gets rid of his weapons programs and his weapons.
Thank you, sir.
Update 3: I am still intrigued by the airbrushing of The Spat in the Korean media, including both government-run media like Yonhap and those that are normally eager to report both Roh’s embarrassing fumbles and American dismay at them. Check the normally anti-Roh Chosun Ilbo: an airbrushed Arirang News report. Still, the Chosun Ilbo’s photo is one for the ages:
The Joongang Ilbo’s than Brian Lee, arguably Korea’s best journalist covering America, contributes to a report with a buried reference to a “slightly testy exchange.”
I really don’t know what to make of this reversal of the normal trend in the coverage of U.S.-Korea relations. Usually, the Korean press shouts from the summit of every molehill while U.S. press dozes on. Over here, this story was widely covered. Americans who might have let Roh pass through the pages of history blissfully unnoticed have instead seen one of his penultimate acts of boobery played over and over on Headline News. Was Roh’s performance was so embarrassing that the “Korean pride” factor restrained reporters and editors of every ideology and affiliation from running the story? If that were the case, you’d think they’d have let Roh’s many other international embarrassments pass, too.
Does this whole thing seem like less of a big deal to Koreans than to Americans? I don’t think so. First, American perceptions are often newsworthy to the Korean press, and this is a Category 3+ perception problem. Second, my unscientific sample of exactly one well-informed Korean e-mailer expresses profound embarrassment about this episode. From there, I’d ordinarily ask my lovely
research assistant wife to survey Korean blogs and chatrooms. This time, that probably won’t tell us much, since the story isn’t even being covered in Korea.
Which leaves us to wonder if the Roh government’s renewed campaign of press control (two links) is responsible. That just doesn’t explain things to me; for all of the government’s worst intentions, the campaign looks like a raging failure from where I sit, though like everyone else, I’m judging the stories I get to read, not the stories I don’t get to read.
What say you?