[GLOBAL EYE]Time to choose words carefullyConcerns at the beginning of the year that 2005 might be an ominous year for the Korean Peninsula seem to have become reality. The South Korean foreign minister himself said, “The situation is serious.” The leaders of South Korea and China, who more than any other heads of state had emphasized the need for a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear problem, hurriedly met to express “deep concern” and to urge North Korea to “return to the six-party talks without delay.” All of this adds to the seriousness of the situation.
We should wait and see whether North Korea, having already declared that it has nuclear weapons, conducts a nuclear test to demonstrate beyond doubt that it is a nuclear power. But there is always the possibility that North Korea, to assure the survival of its regime, will play the brinkmanship game of proving that it has nuclear weapons.
It seems that North Korea continues to rush toward the brink, as it denounces our foreign minister as the “trumpeter of the United States” and argues that South Korea benefits from North Korea’s nuclear deterrent.
The argument for a North Korean “nuclear umbrella” ―the point of view that North Korea’s nuclear arms will be ours once the nation is unified ―is in line with the argument made by some South Koreans who consider unification the utmost priority. It would be absurd if the reward for embracing North Korea and advocating inter-Korean cooperation turned out to be nuclear protection by Pyongyang.
Our government cannot be exempted from responsibility for aggravating the North Korean nuclear problem to this point. By giving the North the impression that South Korea is on its side, our leaders have incited the North to play a dangerous game of tug of war rather than choose to solve the problem. A Washington Post columnist makes the paradoxical point that the only benefit that could emerge from a North Korean nuclear test would be that it would make China and South Korea, which had refused to recognize the nuclearization of North Korea, wake up and face the reality of the situation.
As the response to North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship moves on to Plan B ― that is, sanctions and a blockade ―ominous scenarios are rampant. Perhaps there has been some exaggeration on the part of the U.S. media, or a conspiracy of neoconservatives, but we would be complacent if we were to conclude that there is no chance of sanctions because China and Russia have veto power in the United Nations Security Council. The secret of national security is to assume the worst and prepare for it.
Now is not the time to cling to an immature theory of being a “balancer” in Northeast Asia, or a mediator between North Korea and the United States. Since the government has declared that a peaceful solution to the nuclear crisis is needed, and since it has said that South Korea will take a leading role in solving it, now is the time for the government to offer practical ideas.
If North Korea retains nuclear weapons while at the same time gaining the rewards it would get for giving them up, it could be a nightmare scenario for us. To prevent North Korea from maintaining nuclear weapons, we should be arguing with Pyongyang, and sticking by the United States if necessary. If we are misused by North Korea while the rest of the world regards us as of a kind, our fate is bound to be determined by the great powers again.
There has been talk of “soft power,” but the essence of soft power is the diplomatic ability to persuade other countries. In our case, our “hard power” ―our population, military capability and economic might ―is actually stronger than our soft power. Our national image and diplomatic influence lag far behind those factors. The transient “Korean wave” of popular culture is not national clout.
Moreover, how much moral credit will the international society give to a country that overlooks human rights in North Korea? For that matter, look at North Korea itself, which failed to play the role of a “balancer” between the Soviet Union, with its imperialistic policy, and China, with its big-power chauvinism.
One hopes that President Roh Moo-hyun has been careful with his words in his meetings with heads of state in Moscow. China may welcome our role as a balancer at heart, but it will hardly support such a role in reality, because it does not want to worsen its conflicts with the United States and Japan. Russia might side with us emotionally, but for the sake of its national security, it will not tolerate the arms race in Northeast Asia that would result from North Korean nuclear weapons.
It would be wiser for the president to maintain a strategic ambiguity than to make abrupt remarks that could be provocative. He should try to broaden the long-term possibilities for diplomatic activity within this confrontational, four-power scheme. He urgently needs to keep in mind the Chinese epigram that says, “It is more difficult to pretend to be foolish than to be wise.”
* The writer is a senior columnist at the Joongang Ilbo.
by Byun Sang-keun