At the end of this past summer, I visited South Korea as part of a delegation of former U.S. congressmen and other leaders who have a strong interest in the security of the Northeast Asia region. We knew it to be one of the more volatile flashpoints in the world. This is an area where a potential conflict could occur and go global. The Middle East is the other region seen as the most likely area where a wider war could occur. The delegation was made possible by Times Holdings, the parent company of The Washington Times.
Ambassador Christopher Hill, U.S. Ambassador to Korea five years ago and who was with us, remains extraordinarily popular there among the diverse political leadership as well as the average Korean for his straightforward and common sense approach to North Korea. As he told Chosun newspaper’s monthly magazine last March, “North Korea wants trade agreements? We’ll do that. You want an embassy in Pyongyang? We can give you one. Just give up your nuclear program. There is no reason for North Korea to have atomic weapons. There is nobody they can use them on without destroying themselves.”
Our delegation had identified three issue areas we would focus on during our time in Korea: (1) the North-South Korean conflict, (2) the nuclear and missile threat, and (3) ways to lessen tensions between Korea and Japan (and better manage China’s attempts to drive wedges between them). We also touched on cybersecurity issues as they figure heavily in the other three areas mentioned.
An unspoken fourth interest grew out of our shared profession. Nobody actually retires from politics anymore, and most of those in our delegation are active in foreign affairs from the platforms of academia or consulting with businesses and other political leaders. We were also keenly aware of the upcoming visit of President Park Geun-hye, and we were interested in observing her progress as president, and how she is regarded in the eyes of her countrymen.
In our meetings with the South Korean foreign minister, key legislators in the Korean National Assembly, and the U.S. side as well — the American Embassy’s team and the U.N. Command/U.S. Forces Korea — we spent time discussing Ms. Park’s leadership and the historical context of her being the nation’s chief executive at this time.
Only days before our arrival in South Korea, loudspeaker broadcasts across the DMZ that North Korea dictator Kim Jung-un found insulting, caused a temporary escalation of tensions between North and South Korea.
The president, and everyone else in her administration, were consumed in dealing with the cross-border hostilities. Several of the officials we met with, whether from the Foreign Ministry, the National Assembly or the U.S. side — embassy and military — greeted our delegation, alert but with a lack of sleep from dealing with the crisis.
Foreign Minister Yun Byoung-se was effusive talking of his respect for Ms. Park. He said, regarding tensions with North Korea, “President Park’s approach was principled and based on her firm resolve. This was the first time the North made its apology clear through their use of the term ‘regret.’ We considered this an apology.”
The Assembly personnel, the U.S. Embassy team and military briefers, with whom we talked also showed confidence and respect for Ms. Park and her leadership.
Ms. Park, “married to Korea,” in her own words, had been criticized as “the notebook princess” for carrying around a little black notebook to jot down things to follow up on or to jog her memory. It’s unusual because we tend to think it’s more presidential to work with a broad brush. Smile, handshake, thoughtful nod, “Sure, I’ll look into it,” and move on. But Ms. Park wants to make sure she handles problems quickly, and that none are forgotten. This is leadership.
When you grow up in a political family, like she has, and when both your parents were murdered by assassins, as hers were, you either get stronger or you fall apart. Ms. Park got stronger and I think the Korean people respect her and they appreciate her decisive approach.
Foreign Minister Yun graciously scheduled an interruption of his vacation in order to receive our delegation. The brief hostilities with the North eliminated whatever was left of his holiday, and our scheduled 15-minute courtesy visit became an hour of substantive discussion.
In addition, we were happy to hear National Assemblyman Joo Ho-young’s upbeat observations about the average Korean’s feelings toward the U.S. and Americans. Mr. Joo, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, said pro-U.S. feelings are on the ascendency among Koreans. Gone is the American bashing of the mid-2000s
A number of things have brought our two countries closer together, including increased belligerence from North Korea and China, as well as some smaller acts one might not think of. One of these was allowing Koreans to visit the U.S. without a visa, a U.S. policy change that began during Mr. Hill’s stint as ambassador. Mr. Hill said, “A Korean citizen can now jump on a plane and go to Hawaii without waiting in line at the consulate for three days. America received a lot of good will from that decision.”
We feel our trip to Korea will help Korean-American relations as we discuss our trip with friends of ours who are still in Congress.
• Dan Burton was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Indiana’s 5th Congressional District from 1983 to 2013. He is currently the CEO of Dan Burton International, a business and political consulting firm.