[GLOBAL EYE]Swallowing the bitter pillThe foreign policy team is finding itself under attack for being uninvited to the negotiating table. And to top it off, Pyeongyang continues to undermine this administration by flickering the “nuclear reprocessing card.” Such undesirable developments cannot be avoided because South Korea’s security and economy have become hostages to the whims of the North Korean decision makers. Seoul may even be compelled to accept its exclusion, given its precarious position of having to choose between Korean unity and a strengthened U.S.-Korean alliance. The South has taken the position that it opposes both a war and a nuclearized North Korea, so it would have had no reason to complain even if it had been Washington, not North Korea, that had proposed to omit Seoul from the talks.
The press and political circles here have criticized the diplomatic ineptitude of the administration. Unless our government is adamant enough to risk a war to prevent North Korea from going nuclear, such criticisms ring hollow. Considering our security dependence on the United States, we cannot afford to defy America every time it suits our taste. President Roh Moo-hyun is correct in calling for changes to the South’s military dependence on Washington.
But the president’s prescriptions for an autonomous military are in danger of sounding like empty phrases to protesters who view anti-American as synonymous with anti-war. It is not easy to convince those constituents who demand mercy for the North Korean regime that keeps us hostage to its policy decisions under the pretext of ethnic homogeneity. It would only seem logical for them not to fear a U.S. military withdrawal. Why then are they restless at the prospect of realigning U.S. Forces in Korea? What drives them to criticize the United States? If only the politicians, the press, and civic groups would realize our position and the level of our capabilities, a better answer to the current security row might be found.
If I were an American official, inviting problems by involving South Korea in the talks would not be a priority. Seoul has undermined Washington’s pressure against North Korea by asking for a lofty compromise with the fickle regime. Incorporating the South in any negotiations would put Washington on the defensive. For the United States, South Korea is just the partner that picks up the tab after the decisions have been made.
South Korea has to accept these major humiliations if our policy is to avoid confrontation and wait for the North to change, even if we are ignored by our kin and discarded by our ally. Domestic confrontations only add to the discord. It must be said that it is too early for South Korea to assume the initiative in dealing with the North. Expecting a quick resolution of the issue is foolish. From what I see, the United States has neither the intention nor the resources to go to war with North Korea. On the other hand, the American domestic political landscape is too divided to pull off a great compromise with Pyeongyang. Eighteen months remain until the next presidential elections, and the real race begins at the end of this year. It took 19 months to resolve the last nuclear standoff in 1994. This dispute is destined to be even tougher, as North Korea has successfully driven up the stakes for everyone.
President Bush is not dull enough to wage war aimed at dissolving the “axis of evil” at the cost of his re-election. Last summer, the White House remained quiet for a full 12 days after it was informed of North Korea’s nuclear intentions, until after Congress passed the resolution to authorize war against Iraq. As soon as he declared victory on Iraq, president Bush turned his focus to the U.S. economy, resolving not to repeat his father’s mistakes. The U.S. negotiation strategies towards the North would be to buy time until the administration is assured of a second term. Fully aware of this outlook, Pyeongyang will attempt to strike a quick deal by drawing attention to its nuclear reprocessing efforts. It seems that North Korea better understands the U.S. than its half-century ally. Being disappointed at being left out of the negotiation amounts to self-torment. And we should brace ourselves for the burden-sharing if we acknowledge that a fragile peace is preferable to war.
South Korea needs to reconfigure its position. We should give priority to formulating a rationale to convince the United States than to persuade North Korea. Such an effort begins with a stern understanding of the realities surrounding the Korean Peninsula. It requires the leadership to voice convictions that may prove initially unpopular. And for the time being, negotiating with Pyeongyang should be left to the United States.
Unfortunately, there seem to be few alternatives.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kil Jeong-woo