[OUTLOOK]Korean diplomacy on shaky ground

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[OUTLOOK]Korean diplomacy on shaky ground

On November 16, U.S. President George W. Bush made his “freedom speech” in Kyoto, Japan. Mr. Bush mentioned the words “free,” “freedom” and “liberty” 79 times in the address. While he had North Korea and China in mind, Beijing and Pyongyang must have interpreted the speech differently. Beijing could think that Mr. Bush used freedom and democracy, the traditional weapons of U.S. presidents, to appease the domestic public and recover his popularity, which was damaged by the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina.
However, Pyongyang has the feeling of being victimized and thinks Washington is tightening up on North Korea over human rights, risking friction with the South Korean government. Mr. Bush’s “freedom speech” must have seemed like an omen.
Sure enough, the ominous sign materialized as reality. U.S. ambassador to Korea, Alexander Vershbow, called Pyongyang a “criminal regime” in front of the Blue House, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Ministry of Unification, which are anxious that the United States might provoke Pyongyang.
Mr. Bush first called North Korea part of an “axis of evil” in 2002, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice branded it an “outpost of tyranny” earlier this year, and now Mr. Vershbow has completed the trio by denouncing it as a “criminal regime.” The comments of sophisticated diplomats are so meticulously calculated and planned that they make people dizzy.
Mr. Vershbow’s remark is no exception. If calling North Korea part of an axis of evil and an outpost of tyranny were like kicking its butt and beating its back, branding it a criminal regime is an act of stabbing a sharp dagger into the heart of North Korea.
Axis of evil and outpost of tyranny were political criticisms, and there were accomplices that were denounced together. However, Mr. Vershbow defined North Korea as an ignominious regime that shamelessly traffics narcotics and counterfeits currency. There is no accomplice this time.
There is a big difference between a political offender and a shameless rogue. Mr. Vershbow distinguished the state and the people from the regime by calling it a criminal regime, not a criminal state. He has made it clear that the infamous criminal here is not North Korea as a country and its people but Kim Jong-il and his gang that control the regime now. The remark is in the same context as of regime change in North Korea.
The future of the six-party talks is murky. Mr. Vershbow stated that economic sanctions against North Korea are not a matter of negotiation. If this is the official position of the Bush Administration, it is highly likely Pyongyang will not want to proceed with the talks.
The lifting of economic sanctions, including financial restrictions, makes up a big part of the price Pyongyang expects it deserves in return for abandoning its nuclear program. Pyongyang’s demand to remove the financial restrictions before reaching a certain level is unreasonable. In the same way, the United States does not seem to be sincerely trying to resolve the nuclear crisis if it draws the line that it is not willing to negotiate on the removal of the sanctions.
Mr. Vershbow was wrong in saying that if North Korea changes, the United States will take corresponding measures. The point of the six-party talks was to encourage Pyongyang to change by offering various incentives, including corresponding measures. Like President Bush and most neocons, Mr. Vershbow is making the mistake of setting a premise that Pyongyang must change first instead of setting a goal to change Pyongyang. If Pyongyang could change by itself, we wouldn’t need six-party talks.
I am increasingly doubtful of what Korean diplomats have been doing. I wonder if they have a conviction that Washington was willing to resolve the nuclear tension with talks. When the U.S. ambassador makes an insulting remark about North Korea, Pyongyang responds hysterically, and consequently, dark clouds draw over the six-party talks.
The Foreign Ministry requested restraint from making provocative comments against North Korea after such a comment came out. This is not diplomacy. It is damage control or reactionary diplomacy.
Japan has recently appointed a special envoy to oversee human rights issues in North Korea. Korea’s cooperation with the United States and Japan seems out of tune. In this shape, we cannot succeed in nuclear negotiations or cooperation with the North. With the shaky Korea-U.S. and Korea-Japan relations, how can President Roh Moo-hyun boast that Korean diplomacy has overachieved?

* The writer is an adviser and senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Kim Young-hie
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