[EDITORIALS]Missile Shield Issue Requires Delicacy

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[EDITORIALS]Missile Shield Issue Requires Delicacy

President George W. Bush reaffirmed Wednesday his campaign pledge to construct a missile-defense system, and foreign governments as well as some Americans are voicing concern about his hard-line stance. While it is still being contemplated, the proposed program will effectively alter the international security system and become a factor in the hegemonic struggle among major powers. Amid all this, South Korea finds itself not being able forthrightly to support or reject the proposal and in need of a carefully thought through foreign policy.

The United States may feel that a missile-defense system is essential for its national defense and global strategy in the new international security environment after the demise of the Cold War. As Mr. Bush points out, today's international threat comes from a small number of missiles in the hands of "least-responsible" states for whom terror and blackmail are a way of life. No one would oppose Mr. Bush's idea of protecting U.S. citizens and allies by preventing the rogue states from triggering an international crisis.

But at the same time, many people inside and outside the United States oppose the missile defense system on the grounds that the ramifications of the program may bring more harm than good. First of all, its very premise undermines the existing international security system. Russia and European countries oppose Mr. Bush's idea to pull out of or scale back the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty while China opposes the program in the belief that it is eventually aimed at containing China.

A second, related concern has to do with the worldwide arms race the program may set off. While its ostensible aim is to reduce the chances of war, countries in potential rivalry with the United States as well as state sponsors of terrorism may increase their arms budgets in response to the missile shield. Even if the United States goes ahead with the program, which still exhibits serious technical flaws, by pouring in astronomical sums of money, it may have to develop further money-consuming new defense systems to counter enhanced threats from competitors and terrorist states. Fortunately, the United States has conveyed its intention to consult its allies as well as Russia before deploying the missile shield; we hope the consultation would be harmonious.

But South Korea still finds itself in a difficult situation. The United States still has North Korea on its list of state sponsors of terrorism. It is natural that North Korea, a missile exporter, balks at the charge. President Kim Dae-jung's neutral remark during a phone conversation on Wednesday with Mr. Bush that South Korea understands the pursuit of the missile defense goes to show the dilemma South Korea finds itself in. We cannot ignore the position of the United States, our ally sealed in blood, but we also have to consider our relations with North Korea and countries surrounding us.

The government must explain this special situation sufficiently to the senior U.S. officials visiting Seoul next week and secure an understanding. It cannot afford to commit another diplomatic faux pas as it did during the summit meeting between President Kim and President Putin of Russia, when it said the ABM treaty should be preserved and strengthened. In particular, the government must persuade the United States that it is a lot cheaper to pursue an engagement policy toward the North and induce it to become a responsible member of the international community than to construct a missile shield against it - and that doing so will bring about a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula.

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