[OUTLOOK]The risks of speaking boldly

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[OUTLOOK]The risks of speaking boldly

According to foreign affairs officials, President Roh Moo-hyun is greatly satisfied with the result of his recent meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Chile. I hope these officials do not view the president’s gratification as a yardstick for measuring the effectiveness of diplomacy, which should be judged by whether it furthers the national interest.
The government has said that President Roh’s controversial speech in Los Angeles, days before his meeting with President Bush ― a speech in which President Roh said North Korea’s self-defense justification for its nuclear program was “understandable” ― was the product of thorough preparation. The administration has praised itself for securing President Bush’s approval of Seoul’s position that the nuclear issue should be resolved in a peaceful, diplomatic way.
In my opinion, however, Seoul should be concerned about the Los Angeles speech’s negative influence on the Korea-U.S. alliance.
The Washington officials and Korea experts I have personally met since the speech were all astonished by it. The ideas contained in the speech differed fundamentally from Washington’s understanding of the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, an understanding that is shared by most U.S. citizens.
Apart from the values and the political ideology revealed in the speech, Washington insiders could not comprehend the president’s inaccurate grasp of the facts. For example, President Roh’s comments on the substance of the second nuclear crisis and its background revealed a lack of understanding of the situation.
For the chief executive of South Korea to have openly expressed his opinion on the North Korean nuclear issue in such forthright language is an epochal event. However, such action is inevitably accompanied by certain risks. In Washington’s discussions of North Korean policy, this speech will undermine the argument for respecting Seoul’s position and will lend weight to the voices arguing for the exclusion of South Korea from the discussion.
Up to now, some Washington officials had been defending President Roh, saying that Seoul’s position on the North ― conveyed, to date, in fragments ―reflected the beliefs of some Blue House aides, not those of the president himself. But President Roh’s Los Angeles speech has made that an unconvincing argument.
A more serious problem is the U.S. government and civilian experts’ opinion of President Roh’s reasons for giving such an address. Some of them think the speech was not so much about Seoul’s concern that the Bush administration might go hard-line; rather, they believe, the speech was aimed more at North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
The prevailing understanding is that President Roh was doing advance work for an inter-Korean summit. If Washington strongly believes this, it could shake the foundation of the Korea-U.S. alliance. Since this could aggravate American society’s distrust of the Korean government, it is time to prepare a counter plan.
If Seoul wants to influence Washington’s North Korean policy in favor of South Korea’s interests, the history of diplomacy has taught us that we need to rebuild the crumbling confidence between the two nations. Given the current policies, it won’t be easy for Seoul to play “an active and leading role” in solving the North Korean nuclear problem.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the premise of President Roh’s speech, if we take the Blue House explanation at face value, is that the Bush administration would turn hard-line in its second term. The departures of moderates and the heightened influence of the so-called neocons are said to amplify this concern.
But Washington’s North Korean policy is not solely determined by the tendencies of individual policymakers. Various international and domestic factors will influence policymaking. Considering the aftermaths of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and President Bush’s domestic plan for the second term, it is invalid to conclude that President Bush’s mantra of peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue is mere rhetoric.
Kim Jong-il is longing for a duet with Washington. If he drastically changes his attitude in the six-nation and bilateral meetings, it will enhance the flexibility of Washington’s policy. If Pyeongyang were to give up its nuclear armaments, as President Roh firmly believes it will, there would be no reason for the United States to resort to hard-line policies.
The urgent task for Seoul is to reshape its own policy in a creative and realistic way, so that Washington can resolve the tension without choosing high-handed measures.

* The writer is a professor emeritus of political science, at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Young C. Kim
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