Good diplomacy once meant never having to say you're sorry. Or apologizing. Or even uttering that half-apology, regret.
But national pride slowly has given way to the practical use of confession and contrition as a way to avoid repeating the past and mending relationships for the sake of the future.
From Japan to Switzerland to the United States, various versions of "sorry" have worked well over the past few years. The latest one is an admission by the US that an "unknown" number of unarmed Korean refugees were killed by American GIs during the 1950-53 Korean War; this was accompanied by a regret from President Clinton for civilian deaths during the conflict at the hands of Americans.
The US move comes after a 15-month probe of the incident by the Pentagon, which was forced to revisit the massacre following an investigation by the Associated Press.
The shootings occurred near the village of No Gun Ri during some panicky days of that war and have been long remembered among survivors in South Korea, a key US ally.
The Pentagon probe was not able to pinpoint the exact number of deaths or verify that the shootings came after an officer's orders. As a result, South Korea receives only a regret (with no presidential admission of guilt or apology), and compensation in the way of a monument to the dead and scholarships for Koreans. This careful crafting of official contrition is a result of the US claim that ill-trained GIs shot out of fear that the civilians included North Korean agents.
Still, it comes at a time when the US and South Korea are renegotiating the pact that keeps US soldiers in the country. And the US also wants to protect its soldiers from acts of anti-American resentment by Koreans.
As Japan has discovered with its various regrets for its wartime activities, the US may not please everyone with this statement. The art of confessional diplomacy is still in its infancy. Still, the fact that a superpower bowed its head to a small country for past misdeeds can't help but bring some healing, and set an example for other nations. Humility and truth do have restorative power, even if not fully expressed.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society