Semantics of Awkward Summit
By Tong Kim
President Roh Moo-hyun did it again when he tried to put words into the mouth of U.S. President George W. Bush last Friday in Sidney.
This happened when Roh said, he did not hear Bush mention ``a declaration to end the Korean War" during a joint press appearance following their meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.
``Did you say so, President Bush?" Roh challenged. Bush had just said in his opening remarks that they had a ``friendly and frank discussion" and that ``when the North Korean leader fully discloses and gets rid of his nuclear weapons programs, we can achieve a new security arrangement in the Korean Peninsula."
At Roh's urging, Bush replied, ``I said it's up to Kim Jong-il as to whether or not we're able to sign a peace treaty to the Korean War. He's got to get rid of his weapons in a verifiable fashion."
With a broad smile, Roh still demanded a further clarification, ``I believe they are the same thing, Mr. President. If you could be a little bit clearer, please?"
The irritated Bush awkwardly chuckled, glancing at his secretary of state before responding, ``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." Bush ended the press availability with ``Thank you, sir."
During this unexpected exchange, the delegations on both sides appeared to look uncomfortable, if not nervous. Staff always want to see their president do well and look good.
Reporters quickly portrayed this incident as ``a testy exchange," ``an awkward moment," or ``a mini diplomatic incident." The White House NSC spokesman complained something was lost in translation, claiming that President Bush ``made clear in his opening remarks that he told Roh that the U.S. is committed to a peace agreement once North Korea complies." But it was not so clear.
In presidential diplomacy, public statements other than pleasantries are often ambiguous, and ``frank" or ``candid" usually means disagreement. Apparently the White House had thought the vague phrase ``a new security arrangement on the Korean Peninsula" would suffice to satisfy Roh. But it did not.
Before asking for Bush's clarification, the Korean president said they ``revisited" in their meeting the issue of ending the Korean War and President Bush ``reaffirmed his determination" to replace the Korean armistice with ``a permanent peace regime."
Roh also reminded Bush of his commitment during last year's APEC summit in Hanoi that the U.S. president would sign a peace agreement with North Korea.
Obviously, ``a new security arrangement" was not enough to President Roh, who will soon meet with the North Korean leader. Bush urged Roh to tell Kim Jong-il ``to continue to adhere" to the agreement to end his nuclear program.
But if both leaders discussed the peace arrangement issue and if they are on the same page, why did President Roh need to hear a specific phrase like ``to end the Korean War?" Perhaps the answer should be found in the difference in semantics between English and Korean as well as in Roh's political agenda and his lawyer habit.
Koreans prefer to hear a direct, unequivocal message. To the Korean ear, the vague expression of ``a new security system" could sound like a regression from ``signing of a peace treaty to end the Korean War." Roh does not easily give up his goals.
When Bush said, ``whether or not we're able to sign a peace treaty," he probably meant a peace agreement, in the sense his NSC staff uses the term. It is not the first time President Bush misused the semantics of the English language. He may not even be clear on the difference between ``a peace agreement" and ``a peace treaty" in this case.
What he is clear about is that the United States will not agree to any type of peace mechanism to end the Korean War unless and before North Korea gives up its nuclear programs and weapons.
And this is a clear statement of U.S. policy that should put to sleep any arguments that the United States would proceed to diplomatically recognize North Korea, allowing it to keep a small number of nuclear weapons that it has already developed.
Now it is also clear that a peace declaration that is high on President Roh's agenda for his summit with Chairman Kim Jong-il will not be able to end the Korean War. Roh is well known for his defiance against the establishment at home and abroad. He is also known as the least friendly Korean president to the United States. Bush is known as the least friendly American president to North Korea.
Some Koreans may give credit to their president for publicly standing up to the American president. Other Koreans may think Roh's adventure was unnecessary and unhelpful to the traditional relations between the two countries.
Kim Jong-il may have been impressed or amused by Roh's challenge. Bush has not changed his negative perception of North Korea, and Kim Jong-il knows it.
In all this, the denuclearization process is making good progress. At the invitation of Pyongyang, a team of nuclear experts from Russia, China and the United States are visiting Yongbyon this week to survey and recommend ways of disabling the nuclear facilities, including a 5-megawatt reactor, a fuel fabrication plan, and a reprocessing facility. North Korea reaffirmed that it would file a complete report on its nuclear programs.
There are encouraging signs that the second phase of the Feb. 13 agreement _ that is for disablement and declaration of Pyongyang's programs _ will be completed by the end of this year.
In the meantime, there was another incident last week involving the interpretation of public statements regarding the issue of taking North Korea off from the U.S. list of terrorism sponsors. Pyongyang's foreign ministry spokesman claimed that ``the U.S. decided to delist the DPRK as a terrorism sponsor." The State Department quickly said, this is not so.
Given the progress at U.S.-DPRK bilateral talks for denuclearization, discussions of the terrorism list and lifting of the application of the Trading with the Enemy Act seem to be taking place toward a positive destination.
From these meetings, the North Koreans could have gotten an optimistic notion that these issues will be resolved to their benefit. Or they wanted to make it official by publicly stating that the United States will take those measures.
For Washington, this creates two problems. One, the North Korean claim is not accurate. Two, Washington has not prepared its conservative constituents to accept these measures at this point. Don't hold your breath, it's coming.
Tong Kim is former senior interpreter at the U.S. State Department and now a researach professor at Korea University and visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He can be reached at email@example.com.