Saturday, July 17, 2010

ROK defence vice minister lays an egg at the New York Korea Society

Weeks after the New York Korean Society held an invitation only meeting on the sinking of the ROK [Republic of Korea aka South Korea] navette 'The Cheonan', its president former ambassador Mark Minton welcomed ROK vice defence minister Chang Soo Man.
Mr. Minton delivered an off the cuff introduction of Vice defence minister Chang on 15 July 2010. The Society's new president rarely addresses public sessions, and he has yet to gain his sea legs.
The ROK vice defence minister spoke on 'stability and security on the Korean peninsula'.
The audience had in its hands a glossy, slick pamphlet 'Investigation Report on the sinking of [the] ROK ship "Cheonan"', issued by the South Korean ministry of defence on 20 May 2010. The attendees and the wire services--AP and Reuters--looked forward to Mr. Chang's expose on the post Cheonan political and military implications on the Korean peninsula.
A word or two of introduction for the vice defence minister: Chang Soo Man is a technocrat and stalwart of the ruling Grand National Party [GNP]. A technocrat with degrees from Brown and Korea University, he has expertise in matters financial and procurement. A commissioner of the Busan Jinhae Free Economic Zone Authority, Mr. Chang knows had to keep the administrative house efficient in whatever he undertakes, it is said.
Vice minister Chang chose to speak in English, although he had an interpreter on hand for any language difficulties.
Mr. Chang is using his trip to the US, partly, as a dog and pony show to present South Korea's views on the sunken 'Cheonan'. His slide show is well done and makes Mr. Chang's points simply and directly be it on the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea aka North Korea] or US South Korea military cooperation, etc.
However his talk dwelt to a large part on the torpedoing of the 'Cheonan' allegedly by North Korea.
The vice minister's presentation took 30 or so minutes. And then the floor was opened to questions.
Overall, Mr. Chang was in friendly territory. And yet, the questions he had to answer had barbed hooks.
Before looking at some of the questions and the vice minister's answers, Mr. Chang seemed unprepared to answer quickly on his feet in English, and stubbornly refused to use the skills of his interpretor. Had he not learnt from long service in government to use Korean, albeit fluency in English, in order to use time to answer questions he might find like quick sand or to parry others which he did not wish to answer publicly? Instead Mr. Chang used English and it showed how 'unprepared' and at times confused.
The vice minister spoke with an evangelical fervour to Society members who are sympathetic to the ROK. Still it may have come as a surprise that although preaching to the choir, he encountered some traction and more than a handful of doubt.
From sympathetic Korea experts either in academia or think tanks, he was at a loss to explain convincingly why after the 'Cheonan' incident the Lee Myung bek government failed to immediately inform the US military or the American ambassador. It was unclear of how long it took the ROK took to contact US political and military authorities in South Korea so that they could instruct the Obama White House, US department of state, and the Pentagon. The lack of clarity or of finesse in answering the question thickened the cloud of doubt about the sunken ROK corvette.
Vice minister Chang was asked to comment on the ongoing investigation of 25 naval officers who 'fudged' evidence and information as to the torpedoing of the 'Cheonan', as well as the looking into the state of drunkeness of some of the officers. It was brought to his attention that in a July issue of 'Japan Focus' two Korean American university professors--a physicist and a political scientist, published 'Rush to judgment: inconsistencies in the South Korean 'Cheonan' report' which raised doubts about the way the report and its conclusions.
At first, Mr. Chang intimated that he had not seen the article, yet he had no problem with the names. He took offense that the naval officers were drunk, but in his valiant attempt to explain the role of the DPRK in sinking the ship, supported by a team of Korean and foreign experts, he made some interesting admissions. Yes, we learn some officers were two sheets to the wind; yes, there was questions about the handling of the information; and strikingly that the Swedish experts refused to sign the ROK 'Cheonan' Report, thereby raising expert scepticism about the nature of the case against the DPRK.
Asked as to why the full 150 page ROK report was not made immediately available to the public by South Korea, but only to selected authorities and governments--China and Russia, he owned up to the fact that South Korea would 'soon' made the complete report public.
Mr. Chang was spared the sharp observation that South Korea did not get its desired condemnation of North Korea at the UN Security Council.
Asked about the apparently friendly meeting of the DRPK and ROK military at Panmunjan after the Security Council didn't blame North Korea in the sinking of the 'Cheonan', vice defence minister Chang did not even know that the meeting had taken place. This sorry admission just added to his confusion even though at times his interpreter to snatch him from the humiliation of his ill preparedness came to his rescue in Korean.
Afterwards Mr. Chang fielded more vanilla questions on a peace treaty, relations with the North, and why the Lee Myung bek government chose not to honour treaty agreements signed by former president Roh during a visit to Pyongyang.
More likely time had a hand in limiting broader questions, the more especially since the vice minister dwelt long on trying to bell the Pyongyang cat with the sinking of the 'Cheonan'.
A feisty speaker, it is easy to imagine how he would answer questions about the Lee Myung bek government's single minded policy to humble if not push the DPRK to the point of collapse. Consider the punishing moves to cut off fertilisers to the North; limit drastically food supplies to relieve Koreans in the North who are living on the edge of starvation; the limit on medicines to treat the spread of TB or other diseases. Instead, his listeners were graced with a Potemkin Village description of happy Koreans loving each other whatever side of the DMZ they lived.
One had to pity the vice minister. He tried hard but in a snit of egoism, and the spirit of the fanatic, he did not do himself a favour by going off script, taking all comers on in English when answering in his mother tongue would have given him time to sculpt an answer which would parry thrusts of difficult questions and so on.

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