Wednesday, April 27, 2005

# Posted 12:37 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

PLAGIARIZING MYSELF: After two weeks offline, it's hard to get back into the fast-paced, up-to-the-minute rhythm of blogging. Therefore, instead of opining about current events, I shall regale you with an excerpt from that timeless cure for insomnia known as "My Dissertation".

The passage below is about Reagan's trip to South Korea in 1983, but you will probably find it more interesting for what it says about the state of political journalism. Apparently, if blogs had existed twenty years ago, they would've had plenty to criticize about the MSM:
Air Force One touched down in Seoul on November 12, 1983, at a time of great international sympathy for the people of South Korea. In September, the Soviet air force shot down a South Korean passenger jet after it strayed into Soviet air space. Hundreds of travelers perished, almost all of them citizens of the US and ROK. In October, North Korean military operatives sought to assassinate Chun Do Hwan during a state visit to Burma. Chun survived because the North Koreans detonated their bomb prematurely. Nonetheless, four members of Chun’s cabinet died, along with numerous other senior officials.[1] If the realist hypothesis is correct, then these powerful demonstrations of the Communist threat to South Korea should have led the United States to further compromise its democratic principles and embrace the South Korean dictatorship even more tightly. Instead, Reagan did the opposite.

Speaking before the National Assembly, Reagan withheld direct criticism of the regime but firmly insisted that democracy was the goal toward which South Korea must strive in spite of the ever-present threat from the North. The president declared that:
The development of democratic political institutions is the surest means to build the national consensus that is the foundation of true security…We welcome President Chun's farsighted plans for a constitutional transfer of power in 1988…Now, this will not be a simple process because of the ever-present threat from the North. But I wish to assure you once again of America's unwavering support and the high regard of democratic peoples everywhere as you take the bold and necessary steps toward political development.[2]
Reagan reinforced this public message by confronting Chun in private about the state of political liberty in South Korea. In a prepatory memo for the president, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane informed Reagan that “your second meeting with President Chun should focus on political liberalization and economic issues. Although Chun will not welcome a discussion of the Korean domestic political situation, he will expect you to refer to it and to express support for further liberalization.”[3] Chun did not resist as strongly as McFarlane expected, however. Instead, the Korean president told Reagan that the ROK’s turbulent postwar history had led “the people [to] believe that a change of presidents is only possible through violence. This is a very dangerous way of thinking…My term is scheduled to end in 1988 and it will.”[4] Although Chun had often promised, in public, to step down at the end of his term, few believed that he would become the first South Korean president to leave office without being killed or overthrown. Since Chun himself had supervised the drafting of the 1980 constitution that limited the ROK president to a single term of office, few believed that Chun would let the constitution get in his way if he wanted to stay in power. However, by making a private commitment to Reagan – his most powerful and sympathetic ally – to step down in 1988, Chun indicated just how serious he was.[5]

Unaware of the private commitment Reagan had secured from Chun, American journalists found themselves unsure of whether Reagan’s public call for reform represented a sincere attempt to promote liberalization or a cynical apologia for an intransigent military dictatorship. In a front page story about Reagan’s address to the National Assembly, the Washington Post recounted Reagan’s remark that “You are not alone, people of Korea. America is your friend, and we are with you.” Its correspondents then reported dispassionately that “Reagan and top U.S. officials made it plain that they identify the ‘people of Korea’ with Chun's authoritarian government.” The Post also emphasized that Reagan had not scheduled any meetings with prominent South Korean dissidents, whereas Jimmy Carter had done so during his visit to Seoul in 1979. In an editorial three days later, the Post savaged the president’s diplomacy on the grounds that Reagan
Did not simply stay publicly mute about South Korea's [human right] violations. He strongly praised its "continued progress." It was no routine speechwriter who had him welcoming President Chun's "farsighted plans for a constitutional transfer of power in 1988"--yes, 1988. It was a satirist.[6]

The New York Times was far kinder to the president. The top headline in its November 12th edition read “Reagan Bids Seoul Seek Democracy; Denounces North”. The first sentence of the article below the headline quoted Reagan to the effect that democratic change is “the foundation of true security.” Three days later, a headline in the Times observed that “Reagan Trip Buoys Seoul Leadership”. The Times’ correspondent took care to note, however, that while “Mr. Reagan repeatedly gave his commitment to South Korea's security, he did not match those words with a ringing endorsement of President Chun himself. It seemed to reflect a widely held judgment that Mr. Chun, while holding uncontestable power, does not enjoy unflagging popularity.”[7] This confusion was never resolved, since South Korea disappeared from the front page soon after Reagan returned home.

[NB: I've included my footnotes below even though the notation is somewhat confusing for laypersons. FYI, "Oberdorfer 1997" refers to Don Oberdorfer's excellent book The Two Koreas.]

[1] For a more detailed account of the downing of the jet and the bombing in Rangoon, see Lee 1984 and Oberdorfer 1997:139-144.
[2] PP-RR, 12 Nov 1984, “Address”.
[3] Memo – McFarlane to Reagan, 5 Nov 1983, DDRS Doc. CK3100497051.
[4] Memo – Wolfowitz to Shultz, 19 Nov 1983, NSA/Korea.
[5] Chun’s family had been pushing hard since his inauguration for a legitimate succession that would prevent Chun from sharing his predecessor’s fate. (See Oberdorfer 1997:162) Thus, Chun’s commitment to Reagan represented the acknowledgment of a decision that had already been made, rather than a concession to American pressure for liberalization. Moreover, Chun’s commitment to step down from office did not entail a parallel commitment to allow the democratic election of his successor.
[6] WP, 12 Nov 1983:A1; 15 Nov 1983:A14. Because of the time difference between Seoul and Washington, the November 12th edition of the Post reported in full on Reagan’s November 12th address to the National Assembly.
[7] NYT, 12 Nov 1983:A1; 15 Nov 1983:A5.

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