[OUTLOOK]Roh wobbles on a 3-legged perchDespite South Korea’s exclusion from the Beijing talks, President Roh Moo-hyun has embraced the three-way meeting in Beijing over North Korea’s nuclear program. Fanfare for a “peaceful prosperity policy” was set to ring out, complete with the overhauling of the National Intelligence Service. The talks in Beijing, however, ended in dismal tones, with North Korea admitting that it possesses nuclear weapons. Plans also fell apart in Seoul for Mr. Roh and his North Korea policies, with the National Assembly’s heated criticism of the president’s choice to head the nation’s intelligence agency.
The president is engaged in a three-way war. Most prominent in this engagement is dealing with North Korea’s nuclear bluffs. The president must also try to stop any attempts at a pre-emptive strike by the United States on the North. Then there is the struggle to overcome a “South-South” collision of opinions over the North. It almost seems that any false step President Roh takes could develop into a “disastrous event, even tomorrow,” as Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Alexander Losyukov, has said.
The real seriousness of the problem is that the government does not seem to properly realize, or does not act like it properly realizes, that these challenges cannot be dealt with by the logic and policies of yesterday. The Roh administration seems genuinely confounded to find that there are far more restrictions on its scope of action than it had realized in its eager early days. The government’s “peaceful prosperity policy” has run aground on the North’s admission that it possesses nuclear weapons, and it has yet to realize that it might need to find a new vision and turn to savvy old hands.
The game plan to deter further nuclear development by the North Koreans and the game plan to dismantle what nuclear weapons they might already possess requires two completely different sets of policies and actions. This is because of the dilemma created by Pyeongyang’s nuclear bluffing. Until now, we had been able with force to contain threats by North Korea to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” and its occasional bellicose challenges, such as the naval skirmish in the Yellow Sea. Now, containing the North’s threats is increasingly difficult.
The fate of the Korean people, let alone any national interests, would be at stake should we mistake a simple bluff as a real nuclear threat or a genuine nuclear threat for a petty bluff. Our biggest concern lies in the fact that there is simply no administrative policy that transcends such a dilemma. The next near-possible thing would be to counter the North’s nuclear bluffing in coordination with the United States, while working to dismantle its nuclear weapons. The problem here is that the tendency by the United States to act unilaterally leaves us very little room to act effectively on our own. It is also our situation that we cannot just do whatever the United States tells us to do. Or rather, we have come to a point where we must decide just how far down the road we are willing to follow Washington.
Traditionally, our national security policy has been a series of struggles not to avoid being abandoned by the United States no matter what the cost. Now, with the North’s nuclear brinkmanship, it has become a struggle to prevent any pre-emptive attack on the North by the United States, while trying to keep ourselves from being dragged into an armed conflict. Should the hawks in the Bush administration gain dominance, it would mean a heightening of the possibility of a U.S. pre-emptive strike on North Korea, and this, in turn, could mean a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, with the annihilation of our country.
From the perspective of the Roh government, as Winston Churchill is said to have once soliloquized, everyone looks like the enemy right now. The North has its nuclear game, and the United States may have its pre-emptive ambitions, but the National Assembly and public opinion by hobbling the administration’s North Korea policy look just as hostile. What is most important at the moment, however, is the fact that both South Korea and North Korea need the United States at this moment.
Needless to say, the first step the government must take is to resolve the conflict within South Korean society. Met by the fierce opposition of hard-liners in the Senate during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy quoted Caesar Augustus, saying that all the good senators together still make up an evil beast of a senate. Whether the North bluffs or not and the United States strikes first or not, Mr. Roh will have to tame the “evil beast” of the Assembly for suprapartisan support if he is to lay out a foundation for a successful North Korea policy.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.
by Chang Dal-joong