[OUTLOOK]Time for Seoul to speak preciselyThe much-anticipated six-way talks in Beijing over North Korea’s nuclear program ended on schedule. Because all six governments anticipated difficulties in working out some visible outcome from the talks, the statement issued in the name of the meeting’s Chinese chairman setting the date for the next talks in Beijing in two months can be seen as a success. It was encouraging to see that all parties, including the United States and North Korea, seemed to agree that the framework for the talks should not be broken and that mechanisms for the negotiations must be maintained. The U.S. representative, who had initially shown little enthusiasm for negotiations, met separately with the North Korean delegate leader several times during the talks.
A point of concern, however, is that our government had little success in the other objective it had for the talks: the freezing of the status quo. Nothing from the talks guarantees that North Korea will not continue with its nuclear development and that the United States will not step up its pressure on North Korea, which would make things worse at the second round of talks.
The government must return to principles if it wants to overcome this new diplomatic challenge. Above all, we must implement the first of our three principles on the North Korean nuclear program, that of not tolerating “a nuclear North Korea.” So far, the government has not defined what exactly it means by “a nuclear North Korea” and has acted as if the issue were a bilateral problem between the North and the United States. North Korea has announced that it has successfully completed its nuclear developments and insinuated that it would announce possession of nuclear weapons this fall. Albeit belatedly, the government must clarify what level of nuclear developments it would tolerate North Korea to achieve.
Also, the government must implement policies toward North Korea based on “principles and trust” that President Roh Moo-hyun began to emphasize after the three-way talks in Beijing, right after North Korea announced its nuclear ambitions. For example, at the summit meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush, the president promised to continue economic cooperation with the North depending on the progress of the North Korean nuclear issue. Yet not much has changed, even with the North on the threshold of declaring it had nuclear weapons. Another discrepancy is that while the government is willing to declare its ambition of “autonomous self-defense” even at the risk of sending out the wrong signals to our ally, the United States, it does not apply the same principles to our virtual enemy state, North Korea. We declared to an overwhelmingly stronger United States that we would now pursue autonomous self-defense, and had to work up a sweat trying to quell the reaction to that statement. Why, then, are we so timid in front of a North Korea that is so much economically weaker than we are? We’ve never held a meeting of defense ministers with the North, yet we are intent on maintaining a mostly one-sided economic cooperation with them. Moreover, we pretend we do not see the flagrant violations on the part of North Korea of the 1992 accord on non-proliferation on the Korean Peninsula, an attitude that can hardly be compatible with autonomous self-defense.
There is no reason to hesitate now. The government should take a firm stand against North Korea before it declares its possession of nuclear weapons and before we find ourselves in a precarious situation where we are no longer able to defend our most vital national interests. In other words, the government must tell the North that there will be no more inter-Korean economic cooperation should it not abandon its adventurism. Instead, Seoul should tell Pyeongyang that should North Korea conduct its negotiations with the United States in good faith, China and Russia would endorse the promise of security while the South and Japan would willingly provide economic cooperation. By doing so, it can establish an independent stance toward North Korea, restore trust with the United States and also win the support of the public.
There are those who might ask why the United States is so reluctant to exchange a promise of nonaggression for the North’s promise to abandon its nuclear ambitions. After all, the argument goes, all that North Korea is asking for is a guarantee of its security. It would not be too late to consider sanctions on North Korea after the United States gave its promise and nuclear inspections followed. The reality of international politics, however, is that the politics of power prevails there. North Korea should assess the situation clearly and make its judgment wisely.
In addition, the government should take advantage of the active mediation of China and Russia. We should make diplomatic efforts for these talks to go beyond dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program and lay a foundation for exchanging the armistice that ended the Korean War for a peace treaty that could, in the long run, become the basis of multilateral security cooperation in North-east Asia.
* The writer is a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Hong Hyun-ik