[OUTLOOK]A welcome course correctionBy turning to realistic diplomacy at the U.S.-Korea summit meeting, President Roh Moo-hyun successfully smoothed over the difficulties that the two countries had been facing recently in their alliance. Now the president has new worries about how to run a North Korea policy that will be contrary to his earlier beliefs and the wishes of his North Korea “peace and prosperity policy” supporters.
His policy, a more developed form of the “sunshine policy” that was centered on food aid to North Korea, was part of President Roh’s vision to turn South Korea into the center of the Northeast Asian region. With the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program having reached a near-crisis, the president promptly took a more realistic line of diplomacy and sought more coordination with the United States by dispatching Korean soldiers to Iraq. Through the summit, confidence has been restored and foundation for cooperation was consolidated.
As part of those trust-building efforts, President Roh has promised to reduce the range of Seoul’s unilateral policies toward North Korea in the future. From now on, inter-Korean economic cooperation will be linked with North Korea’s nuclear program and there will be less tolerance for any North Korean adventurism, the president said.
Until now, President Roh had opposed any U.S. sanctions on North Korea and did his best to mediate between the United States and North Korea. The United States, on the other hand, complained that it was inappropriate for South Korea to play the middleman and that this only weakened the effects of any pressure the United States might exert on North Korea. Now President Roh has laid to rest any concerns the United States might have had. Should there be any more troublemaking by North Korea in the future, the South Korean government would be bound to join the United States in pressing Pyeongyang to behave.
North Korea provided part of the reason for President Roh’s change of policy. Mr. Roh and President Kim Dae-jung before him had urged the United States toward an engagement policy on North Korea, to the point of being driven into a corner in domestic politics and seeing the U.S.-Korea alliance buckle under the pressure. North Korea then excluded us from the three-way talks in Beijing. It also owned up to its nuclear weapons program without offering any apology for breaking the 1992 bilateral denuclearization pact between the two Koreas and the multilateral Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
North Korea’s uncooperative attitude meant that one way or the other, President Roh would have had to change his North Korea policy. He was forced to reflect the United States’ request for a harder line and send a clear if careful message to North Korea warning against adventurism. Our government will now coordinate inter-Korean economic cooperation based on reciprocal respect, principles and trust, and participate in “additional measures” with the United States and Japan should the North start rattling its weapons again.
The ball is now in North Korea’s court. North Korea has an even narrower range of options than we do. The reaffirmation of the alliance between the South and the United States and the upcoming summit meeting between President Bush and Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi means that the North will feel more pressure.
Pyeongyang is already being urged by its half-friends China and Russia to concede and compromise. It is imperative that the North Korean government see that there are only a few remaining ways to guarantee the continuity of its regime and act wisely.
U.S.-Korea relations and our North Korea policy are slowly finding their way through trial and error. Our priority is to hold in check any nuclear development or other adventures of the North Korean government. Now that the North has admitted to a nuclear weapons program, the “peace and prosperity policy” can no longer insist on consistent cooperation with the North. President Roh has now half-folded his idealist wings and turned to a more cautious and prudent line concerning the fate of the Korean people. What made him see that a romantic view of North Korea can no longer be sustained was not the influence of the United States but the reckless attitude of the North Koreans that threatens the safety of the entire Korean population. Also, in contrast with developments in U.S.-Korean relations during the Kim Dae-jung administration ― from honeymoon to disappointment ― the Roh administration, after an awkward start, has reaffirmed our friendship with the United States. This, we can hope, will be the foundation of a reciprocal relationship of mutual respect and beneficial assistance. The atmosphere of a potential crisis has receded considerably after the announcement that the two governments would act prudently in their plans for the relocation of the U.S. 2d Infantry Division further south.
What our government needs to do now is to accept the likely partial reduction of the U.S. troops here, commence with the gradual transfer of operational wartime control of the Korean military from the Combined Forces Command and continue to develop our independent defense capabilities. That way, Seoul will be able to step forward as a confident negotiator on security issues with North Korea.
Our government must also show the wisdom to turn this crisis into an opportunity to consolidate stability in Northeast Asia by resolving the North Korean nuclear program. It should conclude either a bilateral peace treaty with the North or a three-way treaty with the United States that would be guaranteed by Japan, China and Russia.
* The writer is a researcher at the Sejong Institute.
by Hong Hyun-ik