[VIEWPOINT]Roh talks tough; will it work?

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[VIEWPOINT]Roh talks tough; will it work?

Throughout President Roh’s tour abroad, which started in the middle of last month, there wasn’t a day that some remark of the president, especially on the North Korean issue, didn’t make the news.
There is no need to explain the importance of the president’s words on an international stage. The president’s words need to be carefully chosen. So then how should we interpret the remarks President Roh made, starting from his speech in Los Angeles? There, President Roh said North Korea’s nuclear program makes some sense as a self-defense measure.
Throughout his tour, the president repeatedly discounted the possibility of the North Korean regime collapsing and emphasized the principle of a peaceful resolution to Pyeongyang’s nuclear program.
In Warsaw, President Roh denied rumors of a regime collapse in North Korea, which were prompted by the recent removal of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s portrait from official sites. President Roh said that there was no possibility of Pyeongyang’s downfall because China was helping North Korea and South Korea did not want to see North Korea fall.
In Paris, he sent out a strong message to certain people in Washington who were suggesting a possible breakdown of the North Korean regime, saying, “If it takes an argument with someone to reflect South Korea’s views, then I cannot avoid [this argument].”
President Roh’s continuous hard-line comments do not appear to be impromptu expressions of his personal beliefs. It is most likely that they were carefully chosen words of strategic importance. His comments are consistent: Exclude the possibility of a regime collapse through military options, or of using pressure and economic sanctions in resolving North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
The president’s comments held a consistent message in urging Pyeongyang to return without delay to the six-party talks, in asking Washington to concentrate on diplomatic efforts, and in encouraging the international society to form a consensus on a peaceful resolution.
There appear to be two major objectives behind President Roh’s comments: First, he wants to let it be known that he will not hesitate to disagree with Washington if he sees the necessity, especially with the United States’ hard-line policies toward Pyeongyang. Second, President Roh is sending out a friendly message to the North Koreans and trying to persuade them to return to the talks.
If both of these objectives are achieved, we will be a step closer to a peaceful resolution, and President Roh’s comments will be seen as a wise move. However, the situation does not look all that optimistic.
How much influence will President Roh’s comments actually have on the U.S. government’s neo-conservative policies? By opposing any connection between North Korea’s regime and its nuclear program, President Roh has made it clear that he does not agree with the neo-conservatives in Washington.
However, the second Bush administration’s North Korea policy is clear: Either North Korea completely abandons its nuclear program or Washington keeps all options open -including military force. If North Korea’s nuclear issue is solved in the near future through the six-party talks, it would be a relief. If not, Korea-U.S. cooperation is in for a long, bumpy ride.
How effective would President Roh’s comments be in drawing North Korea back into the talks? The president emphasized that North Korea must give up its nuclear program if it wants to guarantee the security of its regime and economic assistance from the United States and the rest of the international society. The president made it clear in his comments that he sufficiently understands Pyeongyang’s position.
However, to North Korea, its nuclear program is, and will be, an issue between Pyeongyang and Washington. In other words, Seoul does not have much room to work with. Moreover, we cannot guarantee the stability of the North Korean regime nor give it the economic assistance it needs on our own. Thus, we will not be able to persuade the North Koreans on our own.
President Roh’s comments not only carry an element of dispute with the U.S. government, they have narrowed our diplomatic stance considerably. If the six-party talks do not reap considerable results and diplomatic measures come to a standstill, what strategic option will our government have when it has ruled out any economic sanctions on North Korea?
North Korea’s nuclear program is not just a problem for the Korean people, but also an international problem. That is why it must be resolved through the six-party talks. We cannot succeed without the cooperation of the United States. The situation of North Korea’s nuclear status has reached a point where closer cooperation and compromise among involved parties, including the United States, are needed more than ever. Instead of words, it is time for us to exert earnest and refined diplomatic efforts that will allow us to play a practical role.

* The writer is a professor of international relations at the Graduate School of International Studies, Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Soh Chang-rok
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