[GLOBAL EYE]Stumbling Seoul and U.S. policyWashington’s attitude toward North Korea has changed. It is the commonly shared view from correspondents in Washington that President George W. Bush’s approach to the North Korean nuclear issue is no longer unyielding in its demands on Pyeongyang. The U.S. government’s initial position was that it could not possibly bow to the threats made by the Pyeongyang regime, but the Bush administration is shifting from the power-based diplomacy it used to pressure North Korea and other countries.
Domestic politics in the runup to the presidential election next November seems to be the biggest reason. The change comes especially with the growing after-effects of the war in Iraq. Five months after toppling Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration has found itself in an uneasy position with continued casualties among the U.S. forces remaining in Iraq after the war. More American lives have been lost after seizing Baghdad than during the actual war. The monthly cost to maintain the post-war support in Iraq is now estimated to be over $4 billion.
Unless a breakthrough is found soon, even the mighty United States could very well find itself submerged deeper into a slough called Iraq. The post-war developments in Iraq seem to have helped the North Korean leaders in Pyeongyang, who had kept a low profile right after a war that dispelled any doubts about U.S. military prowess, overcome its unusual timidity to raise its fist in defiance of the United States once again.
This does not, of course, prove that North Korea’s tactic of stalling has succeeded. It also does not mean that the United States has yielded to Pyeongyang’s demands. If it had been the Bush administration’s initial intention to pressure North Korea with its hard-line logic, such a tactic was unrealistic from the beginning. Even in this post-Cold War era, there are some things that the United States cannot achieve, even by brandishing its unmatched power.
Putting aside the resistance that naked power would raise among other countries, there are some corners in international relations where U.S. power and logic simply do not work. Power diplomacy has often proved futile, especially when dealing with hostile groups bonded by religious fervor that do not associate with other peoples or sects. Objectively speaking, the United States is wasting the resources of its “empire” by refusing, or failing, to keep a fair distance from the affairs of the Middle East. A struggle with those who feel like they’ve reached the end of the road will always prove energy-wasting. There seems to be no exit in sight.
Compared to the militant and extremist tactics of some Islamic countries, North Korea has been behaving rather modestly. Pyeongyang is reckless enough to defy a superpower by brinkmanship diplomacy but at the same time, it is careful not to step over the line. Survival is the name of the game for North Korea; Pyeongyang, with its own careful calculations, will not allow the crisis over its nuclear development plans to escalate to military conflict.
In addition, certain developments in South Korean society must make even the North Koreans think that things are actually going their way in the encampment of their Cold War enemy. Incidents that would have been thought to have been instigated by the North from behind the scenes in the past are going unchallenged, although they take place repeatedly. That is why it seems unlikely that North Korea would do anything too rash. Pyeongyang talks tough but it won’t make any mistakes that can’t be revoked.
Of course, in the unlikely case that it would yield to such a temptation, North Korea would put an abrupt end to the current atmosphere in Washington, and it knows that the stakes are high.
South Korea is actually deterring North Korea from any drastic behavior by constantly urging the United States to tone down its rhetoric against the North and by escalating “south-south” tensions between the right and left wings of society here. Intentionally or not, the South Korean government has contributed to the improvement of the situation. All that is left now is for North Korea to choose.
North Korea has always been clumsy in looking after its interests, missing several opportunities because of its obsession with honor and saving face. But North Korean officials have recently shown a change in countenance by admitting, albeit unofficially, to past mistakes. It might even be that the breakthrough for the current situation might come unexpectedly from a bold decision on the part of the North Korean leadership.
I urge them to make that decision in the name of cooperation and co-existence of the Korean people as one.
* The writer is an editorial writer and director of the Unification Research Institute of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kil Jeong-woo