[OUTLOOK] A Chance to Overcome Korea's BlunderWith the Washington summit talks just around the corner, Korea made a major diplomatic faux pas with its stance on U.S. plans to establish a national missile-defense system. What is especially frustrating is the continued bungling by the government authorities, who did not realize the seriousness of the issue, in their belated attempts to get the situation under control after the United States raised the issue.
Problems began when South Korea issued a joint statement with Russia on February 27, specifying that the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was a cornerstone of strategic stability that should be preserved and strengthened.
The Bush administration, which needs to revise the ABM Treaty to pursue its missile-defense plans, was amazed that one of its closest allies would state such a position. South Korea became flustered at the U.S. objections, which it had failed to anticipate.
The ineptitude our government showed in dealing with the issue can only be described as disastrous. First of all, the commentaries by government authorities revealed an astonishingly low level of understanding about the implications of the ABM Treaty for the missile-defense program. If they had read the ABM Treaty even once, they would never have had the temerity to insist that there is no link between the ABM Treaty, which prohibits the United States and Russia from defending their entire territory, and the missile-defense system, whose fundamental goal lies in protecting the entire U.S. homeland from incoming missile attacks.
Moreover, the Bush administration's policy in pursuing the missile shield system is not so equivocal as the South Korean government claims it to be. The U.S. plan taking shape envisions a limited missile shield against the countries regarded as likely to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles?amely North Korea. The interests at stake include those of Russia, China and U.S. allies, as well as U.S. political and economic considerations.
With a weak grasp of these realities, President Kim Dae-jung agreed to adopt Russia's position on preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty as South Korea's official position in the joint statement that he issued with President Vladimir Putin. It thus became the key nation officially opposing the U.S. missile-defense plan, as the whole world watched in astonishment. And now, contrary to the position it got Korea to accept in the joint statement, Russia hints at the possibility of cooperating with the United States to review the misile-defense program, provided it does not target Russia, but is limited to countries of concern, such as North Korea.
An even more serious aspect of this diplomatic debacle is the South Korean government's failure to conduct a comprehensive review of national interests. There are hardly any signs that it gave as much consideration to its interests with the United States as it gave to North-South interests. It is all the more serious if the government chose this direction based on a naive philosophy of peace or on a rudimentary theory of the balance of power.
In order to have this fiasco under control quickly and prevent similar occurrences, the government has to make the most of its summit with the United States by concentrating on short-term measures. The government's position of maintaining strategic ambiguity based on a general goodwill might have worked before, but it is not going to be effective in recovering the eroded U.S. confidence in South Korea now that it has made such a clear declaration in the joint statement with Russia.
The essence of the summit with President Bush lies in the encounter between President Kim's way of thinking anchored in his sunshine policy, and the Bush team's way of thinking based on the missile-defense system. Mr. Kim has to reconcile the differences if he wishes to recover U.S. confidence and look forward to winning North Korea's confidence at the same time.
The reconciliation has to begin by reaching an agreement that nuclear and missile proliferation by countries of concern, including North Korea, is not desirable for the security of the Korean Peninsula, the Northeast Asian region or the world.
Next, it is necessary to propose specific diplomatic and military means of preventing the proliferation. But first, Mr. Kim has to seek ways to reinforce the system of cooperation with the United States. If the North Korean authorities abandon the expectations they pinned on our government during this process, it would facilitate the achievement of international cooperation on American missile-defense plans.
But it will be impossible to prevent a similar diplomatic folly from recurring merely by making short-term efforts during the summit. As soon as the summit is over, the government has to thoroughly pinpoint the reasons for this diplomatic blunder, and find ways to remedy the systematic flaws as soon as possible. At the same time, it has to devise the measures necessary for it to acquire the acumen to formulate foreign policies appropriate to strategic-thinking.
The writer is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University.
by Ha Young-sun