[OUTLOOK]A North Korean wake-up callThe Korean Peninsula seen from the outside seems quite an unstable place. The United States and other major powers view North Korea’s nuclear program very seriously. Curiously, such a sense of crisis is not found anywhere in Korean society itself.
In the November1994 issue of Foreign Affairs, I wrote that if North Korea obtained nuclear weapons, it would be a “strategic nightmare” for the South. Today, this possibility is about to become a reality and yet South Koreans do not seem to feel any sense of urgency. The United States is building a global coalition to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but South Korea is pursuing its relations with the North separately from these efforts.
The widening gap between these two contrasting policies is the fundamental reason for the current troubles in Korea-U.S. relations.
In retrospect, since the inter-Korean summit meeting in 2000, the two Koreas have expanded their exchanges on the issues of separated families, the economy and culture, but have not established what is more important ― a peace process.
The June 15 declaration also did not include any agreement on security issues. Because of this, President George W. Bush emphasized that North Korea’s conventional weapons, along with weapons of mass destruction, would be a serious threat to South Korea and the stability of the region to President Kim Dae-jung when they met in March, 2001. After this meeting, there were two naval skirmishes between North and South Korean warships.
In October, 2002, when Assistant U.S. Secretary of State James Kelly visited Pyeongyang, the North Korean government admitted to owning an enriched uranium facility separate from the nuclear facility in Yeongbyeon that had been frozen by a 1994 accord with the United States. This, of course, was in breach of a 1991 non-nuclear declaration by the two Koreas and other related international treaties.
After the first six-way talks in August 2003 to discuss the nuclear situation, North Korea stated that it would not give up its nuclear weapons unless the United States changed what it called “aggressive policies” against Pyeongyang. Along with its development of nuclear weapons, North Korea possesses the fourth-largest storehouse of conventional weapons in the world. But still, South Korea is not pursuing any peace talks with the North.
Despite this reality, a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in August 2003 found that most South Koreans felt the United States was more dangerous than North Korea. Those who worry about the situation on the Korean Peninsula from outside Korea find it extremely difficult to understand such a phenomenon.
If North Korea acquired nuclear weapons, it would clearly be a bigger threat to the South than the United States. If North Korea succeeds in making its nuclear weapons an established fact, then our plans for autonomous self-defense would have to be abandoned. Whether we liked it or not, we would have to depend more on the “nuclear umbrella” of the United States and pay more for our national defense. Yet even against such a background, the United States is pressing on with its plans to relocate its forces in Korea to south of the Han River, further away from the Demilitarized Zone. Thus, the gap between the U.S. global strategy of preventing terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and maintaining regional stability and South Korea’s national strategy of maintaining deterrance against a war with North Korea keeps on widening.
South Korea’s decision to send 3,000 soldiers to Iraq was an appropriate measure in maintaining its alliance with the United States. But the hesitancy and endless political bickering Korea showed in the process was not helpful in regaining U.S. trust. In international policy, the image of a country is as important as its actual positions. It is our reality that we also cannot attract foreign investment and rebuild our economy without winning the trust of the United States.
When the Asian financial crisis broke out in 1997, the U.S. Department of the Treasury opposed loans to Korea for the reason that they would create a new moral hazard by helping those who had done wrong. But President Bill Clinton listened to the Department of Defense and its emphasis on the role of U.S. troops in Korea and decided to provide prompt assistance.
Thailand, which saw the beginning of the financial crisis before South Korea but had not been able to receive much assistance from the United States, is now cooperating closely with the United States in its war against terrorism. Thailand now boasts the highest economic growth rate in Southeast Asia and receives “semi-NATO” treatment in information exchanges with the United States.
In this world where free rides are no longer allowed, our only way of survival is to rebuild our alliance with the United States. Never before have our policy-makers been required to do as much serious strategic thinking as now.
* The writer is a visiting professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Japan. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Ahn Byung-joon