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Tom’s Journal

November 25, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: And Tom Friedman is just back from South Korea, and joins us now. So, Tom, welcome back.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Good to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: You went to South Korea right after news that was regarded as pretty stunning here, which was that North Korea admitted it had been secretly working on a nuclear weapons program. But you found the South Koreans weren’t as alarmed.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Stunning, here, Margaret, and, ho hum in South Korea. It was really quite shocking, got off the plane, met my translator that afternoon. I said, so like what’s the mood? What’s the mood about the North and the reactor and the uranium? And he said, Brazil is playing the South Korean soccer team on Wednesday, Mr. Friedman, that’s what people are talking about.

Now some of this is generational. You do have a young generation that has been really brought up in the post-Cold War era. And they tend to look at South and North Korea more like a crazy aunt, you know, than a kind of fundamental threat. I mean, this young man, in fact, was telling me the North Koreans had sent a team to the Asian games, which were hosted by South Korea this year, and they came with cheerleaders, North Korean cheerleaders with pompoms, white Nike hats. So I think it’s confusing for them. They did not grow up in that era when every South Korean truly felt a gun to their head.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Tom, if something were to suddenly happen in Canada and a crazy aunt, as you say, someone was elected there who seemed very hostile to the United States and we suddenly learned they were working on a nuclear weapons program, I think most Americans would be very nervous.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Well, remember, back in 1994, their first nuclear weapons program was discovered, and South Korea, North Korea warned the South that they were ready to turn it into a sea of fire. That really did rattle the South Koreans. But since then, that first nuclear program has been put under control and we’ve had this sunshine policy in recent years, conducted by South Korea’s new President, now retiring President Kim Dae-Jung, to really open relation was the North. And as people are had more contact with the North; one, they’ve seen how poor it is, people eating tree bark, starving. At the same time, South Korea has gained a lot of self confidence in the past few years. They recovered from the 1997 economic crisis. There’s 2 percent unemployment in South Korea. They look at North Korea as the biggest employment agency in the world. So, again, this may be slightly generational, you do have a hard core and South Korea is still very worried about it.

But also remember, you know, the South has lived all these years under the threat of 11,000 artillery pieces pointed at them from the North. So you got a nuclear threat, fine, you know what they think? That nuclear threat if it’s used and put on a missile is probably going to be aimed at Japan. And if you’re a South Korean, well, Japan, you it can come, it can go. I mean, that’s like Arabs worrying about Iran having a nuclear missile aimed at Israel. I mean, it will fly over us, but not necessarily aimed at us. So there’s a lot of mixed feelings there. And the bottom line, though, is the kind of urgency we feel isn’t quite felt by the South right now. And there’s all these reasons really explaining it.

MARGARET WARNER: You mentioned that the current President is about to retire and there’s this election going on. Is this an issue in the election?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Not mentioned; virtually not mentioned in the whole election campaign, in part because the soft liners don’t want to raise it as an issue because they fear that, they’ll expose themselves, that some of the hard liners will come at them and say you’ve been too soft all these years, you’ve drunk the cool aid, now you see the result. The hard liners don’t want to mention it though. Why? Because they don’t want to table the Korean stock market, they don’t want to get foreign investors all nervous who have been the key to their economic recovery.

MARGARET WARNER: So is it just an accident that the leading candidate in the polls is someone who advocates a harder line?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Well it’s partly an accident because there’s two opponents, he had two opponent were divided, now one of them is dropping out, so we’ll see. I think there’s going to be more of a balance now as they go into the election, one that reflects the balance within the South Korean population. I traveled in South Korea with my colleague from David Sanger, from the Times, and David has a nice – but what the South Koreans really want is not a sunshine policy, but more partly cloudy – you know, tough on the North, but not too tough that’s really going to provoke a war, and I think that’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: So does the harder line from Washington make them nervous and the tough rhetoric from the President?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Tough rhetoric? Maybe you might have missed it, you could have easily missed it, because the Bush administration really has been playing this down; after this revelation the President came out with a statement, Friday at 6:30, you’re easily could have missed saying we have no intention of attacking North Korea; we respect your sovereignty. The next Monday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the same thing. They do not want a crisis on the Korean Peninsula while this Iraq situation is unresolved. Interestingly, though, Margaret, neither does the North. They’ve been playing it also very, very cool. And the big question is, did the North reveal this nuclear reactor because they want to trade it for more potatoes, more oil, or because they want to keep it? Nobody is quite sure yet.

MARGARET WARNER: But the Bush administration has made clear they’re not willing to trade it, they’re not willing to sign this non-aggression pact as price for the north – once again promising to give it away. They are taking a hard line. Bush is using rhetoric like axis of evil; that’s old. He also said some things to Bob Woodward about Kim Jung Il that if I were Kim Jung Il, I would be a little nervous. But how are — are the South Koreans trying to pressure the U.S. to engage with the North? Are they willing to have the U.S. cut the North off for now?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I think the South Koreans understand that it’s much easier to have an attitude toward North Korea than a policy. As I said, what is North Korea, it’s a guy, he owns a house in the neighborhood, he’s strung dynamite around his house and he has told his neighbors if you don’t bring me Chinese takeout food and pay my heating bills, I’m going to blow up the neighborhood. That is an impossible situation so you could say I’m not giving in, I’m not doing this, and he’s sitting there, you don’t know he’s going to blow up the neighborhood. So it’s much easier to say what you’re not going to do than what you’re going to do.

People say how many times are we guy to buy this carpet from them, more than you think, okay, because it’s a crazy state. And when you’re dealing with a crazy state, normal foreign policy doesn’t work. You know, I had a military briefing from our U.S. military there and they showed us a map, a satellite photo of South and North Korea. And it’s very striking. It’s a night photo, so South Korea is all lit up. Then you see almost total black up to the Chinese border, and lights, and there’s a tiny light at Pyongyang. In other words, South Korea looks like an island off China because there are so few lights in the North, you see nothing, virtually nothing in between. That is a crazy state.

MARGARET WARNER: You were also on the DMZ. What was that like? We’ve all seen countless photos of every President for the last 50 years standing there, looking through the binoculars. What was it like/

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: A shock, because I haven’t been there for eight years, and the DMZ has been turned into almost a theme park in some ways. First of all, the DMZ, because it’s been untouched basically by human hands all these years, has turned into a 155-mile long nature preserve.

MARGARET WARNER: And remind us how deep this is.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: It’s a couple miles deep, and so it’s all this forest and rivers and lakes, full of bald eagle. And we saw a deer scamper right across the road as we were going there. I got up to the Dora observation point we were taken, there’s an amphitheater they’ve built now with a beautiful glass window, and you can look out everywhere, a guy gives you a tour, then they take to you the D M Z Museum, where, you know, Margaret, you and I were in Berlin together, we each brought a piece of the Berlin Wall — I brought home for my kids an official slice of DMZ barbed wire, which I bought for $20. Be the first one on your block, and two DMZ T-shirts for my kids. They now have a ride, a cable car that takes you underground, North Korea has dug four tunnels under the DMZ, which they’ve discovered over these years. They’ve now got a little cable car that takes you down to see the North Korean tunnels. It just is a reflection of kind of the mood, the lowered guard. One of us is deceiving ourselves, I’m not sure if it’s them or us. But definitely, you know, it’s their crazy — and they figure that somehow they’re going to deal with this situation, but that a war is not around the corner.

MARGARET WARNER: So are they, would you say they’re looking forward to unification? I know it’s hard to generalize, obviously; I’m sure you have people on all sides of this. But I remember when Germany was being unified and it was such a rush, some South Koreans saying we don’t want to do it the way the Germans did.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I think that you have mixed feelings there now that they’ve had this sunshine exposure. On the one hand it’s reunified some families. It’s reinforced to them that they are really one nation. And at the same time, they’ve had to look inside that crazy house, and they have discovered how far behind it is, and how much it will cost to bring it up to speed. This is not East Germany. And so I think there’s real mixed feelings about that right now.

MARGARET WARNER: The other presence of course is the U.S. presence there and the 37,000 troops. What’s that relationship like?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Well, I had a meeting with a South Korean professor one day, and I didn’t really know what to expect, I asked to see a sociologist, and we sat down and he started in with the most virulent anti-American rant, and all I could think was, oh no I came here to get away from that, I’ve been in the Middle East for 14 months, please, no, not that! And what you find there is an anti-Americanism fed by really three sources, one is traditional old left pro Marxist Koreans who feel that we did prop up their autocratic regimes. Secondly, though, your people object to our military presence, two American soldiers were acquitted last week in a trial for running over and killing two young South Korean girls. It was an accident, but that produced a lot of anti-Americanism. And lastly there is that feeling that maybe Uncle Sam is standing in the way a little bit between our unification with our brother. So it’s not the kind of vicious al-Qaida-like anti-Americanism which we’ve heard about here tonight. But it’s there, it’s underneath the surface. And just when you think you might have come to the one place where you’re not going to hear it, sorry, there is no such place.

MARGARET WARNER: No such luck. Thanks, Tom.