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[OUTLOOK]Resolution of the Impasse Is Urgent

The new diplomatic team has to perform a high-wire act in rising to the challenge.

Apr 03,2001
A new diplomatic and national security team was created with the March 26 cabinet shake-up. The new team's first task is to accurately perceive the serious nature of the challenge facing the nation's diplomacy. The government authorities' failure to discern a potential diplomatic crisis is easily detected in the way they prepared for, proceeded with, and wrapped up President Kim Dae-jung's summit with President George W. Bush.

The government chose to disregard the pessimistic views and calls for caution in pursuing bilateral relations with the United States after the inauguration of the Bush administration, and instead relied on an optimistic outlook. To make plans for the Washington summit, the government took the rare step of sending both the foreign minister and the head of the National Intelligence Service to the United States to prepare for Mr. Kim's visit.

Although the two countries seemingly agreed on the principle of bilateral cooperation in determining the direction of each other's North Korea policy, they ultimately revealed great differences in their perceptions of North Korea, exposing serious problems in the cooperative framework among the North, the South and the United States.

In the process of evaluating the Washington summit outcome, the government was sanguine in its assessments on the prospects of Seoul-Washington cooperation, and avoided squarely addressing the conflicts existing between Pyongyang and Seoul on the one hand and Seoul and Washington on the other.

The Korean Peninsula will fall into another crisis if the new diplomatic and security team fails to understand that the conflicts in the nation's cooperative framework with the United States and North Korea are driving the nation's diplomacy into greater jeopardy, which will be further exacerbated if it does not come up with ways to resolve the impasse.

Since the 1990s, North Korea and the United States have been entrapped in one crisis after another: the Yongbyon crisis that took place after North Korea extracted plutonium from its Yongbyon nuclear plant to develop nuclear weapons, the suspected underground nuclear facility in Kumchang-ni, and the crisis caused by North Korea's preparations to test-launch its long-range Taepodong missiles.

After each of the incidents, the two countries pursued brinkmanship diplomacy, and in the end, successfully negotiated an end to each crisis. But the Clinton administration ended its term without completely settling the issue of North Korea's missile threat. The Bush administration and North Korea are once again enmeshed in verbal brinkmanship over Pyongyang's missile threat and Washington's plans to establish a national missile defense system.

There are far greater dangers in the deadlock in the negotiations over the missile threat and the NMD system than in the verbal exchanges of foolhardy denunciations. North Korea stringently condemns Washington's claim of its missile threat as a fabrication. On the other hand, the Bush administration takes North Korea's missile threat not as a fiction but as a hard reality, as stated in the Rumsfeld Report, drawn up and submitted by the current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to the U.S. Congress in July 1998. The NMD policy, which the Bush administration is pursuing as passionately as our government is pursuing the sunshine policy, will initially target North Korea, the country viewed to pose one of the greatest threats, in order to stave off strong opposition from Russia and China.

Based on such conflicting positions, the Bush administration is stressing the necessity of reciprocity and verification far more strongly than the Clinton administration did, and North Korea, based on its principles of independent diplomacy, will not easily acquiesce to such demands. The situation points to a high likelihood of the missile negotiations between the North and the United States hitting stumbling blocks.

In order to help resolve the delicate situation, the new foreign affairs and security team has to pursue masterful and complex diplomacy to determine the efficacy of a North-South framework of cooperation based on a foundation of cooperation among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo.

Amid the conflicts prevailing over Pyongyang's closed diplomacy of independence and Washington's closed diplomacy of alliance, Seoul has to encourage both sides toward more openness if it is to avoid being alienated from either. It also has to determine as clearly as possible the limits of the North's closed diplomacy of independence anchored in its ability to develop nuclear weapons and missiles, and steer it toward open diplomacy of independence founded on diplomatic and economic assistance.

The government also has to persuade Washington to pursue open alliance diplomacy grounded in diplomatic and economic means before it decides to apply closed alliance diplomacy revolving around the NMD system. Our diplomacy will face greater challenges if such efforts fail to produce the desired outcome.


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The writer is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University.


by Ha Young-sun




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