• Sun
  • Dec 28, 2014
  • Updated: 3:08pm

Quiet end for a diplomatic failure

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2007, 12:00am

Hardly anyone knew about his death. There were no CNN or BBC live broadcast teams at the funeral. Most of the world did not know, and few cared.


The passing of Paek Nam-sun won't trigger anything remotely like the global ethics drum-roll over the lynching of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, or the trumpeting that made the recent passing of US president Gerald Ford seem like an endless ritual. No, Paek went to his grave very quietly.


The quiet ending befitted the career of a professional diplomat for whom all diplomacy failed.


After all, Paek was for 10 years the top diplomat of one of the countries almost no one wants to develop ties with. As foreign minister of North Korea, this veteran ambassador had to defend a country whose domestic policies were fundamentally indefensible, and whose attitude towards the world was fundamentally hostile - if not incomprehensible.


Did anyone care? Well, South Korean Ban Ki-moon, the new head of the UN, had his press secretary tap out a few lines of unemotional tribute to Paek 'with whom he worked for peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula over the years', in the words of UN spokeswoman Michele Montas.


Mr Ban knew more than he was saying. In reality, Koreans know that their peninsula is still senselessly divided, with the North almost hopelessly poor but still dangerous, and the South growing increasingly wealthy and basically no threat to anyone.


Paek, dead at 77 from what media reports said was probably kidney disease, did not live long enough to see diplomacy weave its magic over Korea. Maybe no one will ever live long enough to see that.


But what a different world it would be today if Paek had been able to live a true diplomat's life.


Imagine the many North Korean children who could have gone daily to well-heated schools, well fed at lunch and at home, with sunshine vistas for the future, if peace and normal relations between the North and South had been properly negotiated.


This sort of outcome, of course, is the whole point of diplomacy. But in the end Paek went to his grave with his legacy as barren as the countryside of his nation.


The failure was not his alone, as failures of diplomacy proliferated all over the peninsula. Today, more than 50 years after the ceasefire that froze Korean war hostilities, the peninsula remains a prisoner of its past.


Paek's passing thus serves as an opportunity to reflect on how many lives over the decades have been wasted - not just the foreign minister's but of his countrymen and of all those affected by the division of Korea.


Imagine how much good could have been done but was not; how much the world loses when diplomacy is found to be impotent.


No one knows how long this division of a nation will last. Korean scholars often tell a funny story of God in heaven responding to a question about when Korea will be reunited with a shrug and a sigh: 'Oh, not in my lifetime.'


With the death of Paek and the rise of the South Korean Mr Ban to the summit of the UN, hopes may be revived of peace on the peninsula sometime before eternity. But a diplomatic breakthrough cannot be the work of one man - even of a superman. War hasn't achieved much in Iraq, and neither has the cold war on the Korean peninsula. When will we all begin to learn?


Peace and prosperity is the calling card of the diplomat. So, can a career diplomat be judged a professional failure when his diplomacy has failed? The answer for Paek - and he probably knew it - was yes.


As a diplomat he was a failure. But to achieve such a colossal failure, Paek needed a lot of helpers.


Some of those who had been so very helpful in keeping the two Koreas on a razor's edge for half a century were at Paek's funeral.


But many others of them were not. And they know who they are. They are the enemies of peace.


Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre


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