[OUTLOOK]We are the solution to the crisisNorth Korea’s Feb. 10 declaration that it had nuclear weapons and would boycott the six-party talks came at a time when observers were expecting a reaction from Pyeongyang to U.S. President George W. Bush’s inaugural speech and State of the Union address. In that sense, the timing of the announcement was not a surprise. But it was a shock to those who were expecting a positive reaction, because President Bush had refrained from criticizing North Korea in those two important speeches.
While the United States has taken a hard-line policy toward North Korea, emphasizing the possibility that the North might have a few nuclear weapons in its possession, South Korea and China, which didn’t believe the North had such arms, have taken a more moderate stance. Now that the North has officially declared itself a nuclear power, the regional strategy toward North Korea is more likely to follow the U.S. hard-line approach from now on.
Washington is expected to become more insistent in its demands that North Korea’s neighbors take a tougher stance toward Pyeongyang. If the clash between the United States’ and North Korea’s respective hard-line policies intensifies, the tension on the Korean Peninsula will escalate.
In order to relieve the tension, the six-party talks should be resumed at an early date; if not, a new formula for solution should be presented without delay. It is likely, therefore, that a duel of power is going to unfold between the United States, which demands the resumption of the six-party talks, and North Korea, which would prefer a bilateral meeting with the United States.
In this confrontation that will unfold, North Korea is expected to use its brinkmanship tactics, while the United States will approach the North with its “stick first, carrot later” policy. Although we can’t rule out the possibility of a dramatic end to the standoff, a crisis seems likelier.
Clues to why North Korea made its unexpected declaration can be found in President Bush’s inaugural speech and State of the Union address. Although President Bush refrained from direct criticism of Pyeongyang in both speeches, their general topics were threatening to North Korea.
Both speeches put emphasis on spreading freedom and democracy throughout the world. This is quite different from the existing foreign policy of the United States. Washington has pursued international peace and common prosperity with countries that were friendly to it regardless of whether the regime in question was a democratic or tyrannical one. But in the future, judging from President Bush’s speeches, the United States will treat tyrannical governments as the targets of regime change, even if they are friendly toward the United States. And the representative tyrannical regimes are Iran and North Korea.
The speeches also defined international terrorism, which poses the greatest threat to U.S. security, as violence committed by the tyrannical regimes of the world, and asserted that the most effective way of rooting out terrorism is therefore removing such governments from the earth. From North Korea’s perspective, this means that the six-party talks are not a forum for solving the nuclear issue, but a means for regime change in Pyeongyang. Therefore, there is no reason for North Korea to participate in the talks; rather, it is in its interest to firmly reject the talks and keep its nuclear weapons for self-defense.
Pyeongyang also believes that South Korea, China and Japan have not done as much as the North expected to soften Washington’s policy. Through its declaration, the North was demanding that these three neighbors put more pressure on the United States. But that demand is likely to rattle the precarious balance with which Seoul has attempted to maintain its partnership with North Korea. If South Korea does what Washington wants, inter-Korean cooperation will be dashed, but if it complies with the North’s demands, its alliance with the United States will be jeopardized. South Korea faces a dilemma. There is no way out of it but to take the lead in persuading both of its hard-line negotiating partners.
To do this, we will have to create a public consensus: that we should stop arguing amongst ourselves about whether to favor inter-Korean cooperation or the alliance with the United States, and instead concentrate on overcoming this crisis.
From now on, those who value the alliance with the United States should stop criticizing the North and start trying to persuade Washington. Those who place greater value on inter-Korean relations should stop criticizing the United States and start trying to persuade North Korea to change, which they have so far neglected to do.
If we manage to create such consensus among our own people, the hard-liners in Washington and Pyeongyang will eventually have to seek common ground. This trouble from outside our borders can be overcome by our internal solidarity.
* The writer is a former chief of the United Nations’ Confidence Restoration Operations.
by Min Byung-suk