[OUTLOOK]With whining comes little respectBy no means is Pyeongyang's nuclear problem to be fully resolved without fundamental changes in the Stalinist system of North Korea. More worrisome for now are the already bruised Seoul-Washington relations, which cannot be easily cured, and a volatile situation on the Korean Peninsula, which might further trigger dangerous developments.
Some 10 years ago, this writer predicted in an article that "As North Korea sees its nuclear program as the sine qua non to its regime's survival, it is only too evident that it will never give up on its nuclear ambitions." Recent events indicate that nuclear diplomacy vis-a-vis the North over the past 10 years has been for naught and any wishful notions of or hasty trust in a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula have turned out to be pipe dreams. Yet voices of dialogue and diplomacy as the means to purportedly resolving the impenetrable problem grow louder by the day. Perhaps such sanguine views might come from the sayings that there never was a "good war," or a "bad peace," and that diplomacy never takes "no" for an answer.
The role of diplomacy with respect to Pyeongyang's nuclear quagmire long ago fizzled. What now remains for South Korea is to choose one of the following: Will it join in the U.S.-led international efforts to let the totalitarian Pyeongyang regime die out, thereby bringing about earlier unification of the Korean Peninsula? Or is it prepared to go down together hand-in-hand with its northern brethren for love of ethnic nationalism even in the face of a concomitant suicide?
In his recent meeting with the U.S. presidential envoy James Kelly, President-elect Roh Moo Hyun is said to have emphasized the importance of the Seoul-Washington alliance. It should be reminded in this regard that the same emphasis was made at the time of the first summit between presidents Kim Dae Jung and George W. Bush in early March 2001. However, subsequent ROK-U.S. relations have fallen to a new low: A prominent American newspaper denounced Mr. Kim as the "most anti-American president" in South Korean history.
The words "precious" or "important," ceremoniously used in diplomacy, will not suffice to ameliorate the ailing ROK-U.S. relationships awash with distrust and discomfort. It is all the more the case as Mr. Roh's questionable remarks have contributed to making Seoul one of Washington's "biggest foreign policy problems." All in the span of a couple of weeks, Mr. Roh has made demands for South Korea to play a leading role in ROK-U.S. relations on an equal footing, has volunteered to mediate in North Korea-U.S. relations and to enhance South Korea's dignity and prestige as a sovereign state, as well as insinuated the possible withdrawal of American troops from South Korea.
Mr. Roh rode to victory on the crest of widespread anti-U.S. sentiment in South Korea, and, as such, will remain obliged for some time to the forces that carried him to power. However, Mr. Roh, as president-elect, must at once do all he can to stop such a political debt spilling over into the realm of diplomacy. The world of diplomacy differs from domestic politics in that normal states, even with the advantage of enormous national power, tend to apply, for the sake of long-term national interests, a complex array of intelligence and tact, while understating their positions with finesse and subtleties.
South Korean diplomacy, in contrast to many other countries with comparable national power, faces more constraints with little margins: the intractable problem of North Korea and the geo-strategic realities of the Korean Peninsula where the four great powers interact with each other. If President-elect Roh wishes to successfully cruise, he needs to correct his erroneous diplomatic stance hitherto publicized and silence his superfluous voices coupled with domestic politics, bearing in mind such constraints and margins.
There is no wholly sovereign state in the world today. The United States is no exception. Sovereign equality is but a textbook principle. The international political system is oligarchic in its structure and operation, as exemplified in the composition of the United Nations Security Council. On the other hand, it has become the general trend in the past several decades that the more states surrender their sovereignty, the more they prosper.
European integration is a prime case. Only having exhausted all options or in helpless despair do states declaim songs of sovereign pride and dignity. That such a hoarse and bitter refrain habitually emanates from the North Korean state －－ international pariah nonpareil －－ which has starved to death millions of its citizens, should come as no surprise. But isn't it an irony of a counter-history regression that South Korea, whose economy ranks near the world's top 10, is tempted to sing such a woeful mantra of sovereignty, particularly to the ears of the ally indispensable for its security and well-being?
Even more woeful than self-pitying declamations of sovereignty are elegiac songs of ethnic nationalism. Having flourished as a powerful ideology of resistance to imperialism until the end of World War II, ethnic nationalism served as a vociferous instrument for the manipulation of power in the formative stage of nation-building, not only in Korea but also in many other post-colonial societies. However, it must be noted that, for a would-be global nation like South Korea, on the threshold of joining the advanced industrial club, such overt ethnic nationalism must poison the already-acquired national interests as well as those further to acquire.
Candlelight demonstrations across the whole of South Korea have been successful in politically capitalizing on the accidental deaths of two Korean schoolgirls by an armored vehicle belonging to the U.S. Army in the months up to the presidential election in December. Romantic nationalism has played a crucial role in organizing such a chorus and rhapsodizing anti-Americanism as its refrain. It should not be repeated again. It can irreparably mar the ROK-U.S. alliance. For South Korea, the world's most successfully industrialized and democratized traditional nation in the second half of the 20th century, to espouse the myth of Korean ethnicity and embrace the North Korean dictatorship is a summons to catastrophe like no other.
South Korea's national dignity and prestige will further rise as it enjoys trust and respect from the civilized world.
By Lee Chang-choon
* The writer, a former assistant minister of foreign affairs for South Korea, is a visiting professor at Myungji University. He contributed this column to the JoongAng Daily.
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