[OUTLOOK]Missiles into plowsharesThe fuss over North Korea’s Taepodong-2 missile is a repetition of a similar incident in 1999. North Korean leaders are using the same tactics they used to good effect back then, but seem blind to the differences in the situation in 1999 and that in 2006. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, is forgetting that George W. Bush is the president of the United States, not Bill Clinton, and that the minimal level of tolerance of the American society to rogue states disappeared after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001.
North Korea surprised the world by firing a medium-range missile over the Japanese archipelago into the Pacific Ocean in August 1998. That was a Taepodong-1 missile, but the North claimed that it was not a missile but the launch of a satellite, Gwangmyeongsong-1. The North, after succeeding in getting international attention, started to move as if it were preparing to launch a Taepodong-2 in 1999. It was speculated that the missile had the range to reach the U.S. West Coast.
The Clinton administration entered into negotiations with North Korea, which demanded $1 billion as compensation if the North were to impose a moratorium on its missile development efforts. In the end, North Korea declared that moratorium and the United States agreed to the partial lifting of economic sanctions on the North.
When we compare the situation in 1999 with that of 2006, we see huge differences in the degree of cooperation among South Korea, the United States and Japan. In 1999, the three countries acted in concert to stop the firing of the North Korean missile. President Kim Dae-jung warned North Korea that if it went ahead with its planned missile test, it would result in serious consequences. Foreign Minister Hong Soon-young warned that Seoul would stop food aid to the North. The United States and Japan also sent warnings to the North, saying that they would impose stronger economic sanctions and withdraw their support for the light-water reactor construction project.
What is the situation now? Washington and Tokyo, thinking that the possibility of a new missile test is high, sent warnings to the North reminding it of possible countermeasures they could take. The United States has even leaked word that it was ready to intercept a missile fired by the North.
But Seoul is still quite blase. President Roh Moo-hyun “isn’t saying whether it’s bitter or sweet,” to use a Korean idiom, and a senior government official said that the preparations in the North could be for a satellite launch rather than for a ballistic missile. A firing is not imminent, he added. The same official also made a remark to the effect that Washington and Tokyo were exaggerating the seriousness of the situation. That is quite a contrast with 1999, when the foreign ministers of South Korea, the United States and Japan all issued statements demanding that North Korea drop its plans.
One cannot help but regret a situation in which relations between South Korea and the United States and those between South Korea and Japan have deteriorated to this extent. Even if the missile is being prepared to launch a satellite, there is little difference: the launch vehicle is a missile that might be medium-range, a Taepodong-2, or even an intercontinental ballistic missile. Whether the nose cone contains a satellite or a warhead not does matter much.
The Daily News, published in the Los Angeles area, reported that despite the missile crisis, Korean residents there are more afraid of Alexander Frei, a leading goal scorer on the Swiss World Cup soccer team, than of Kim Jong-il.
Should we be happy to hear that or lament over their indifference to a crisis at home? President Bush warned that North Korea would bring on itself international isolation if it went through with plans to launch a missile. I wonder whether he mistakenly said “North Korea” instead of “South Korea.” I worry over the way both Koreas are being isolated internationally.
If North Korea launches a missile, the six-party talks on North Korean nuclear program will become useless and tension on the Korean Peninsula will climb to a level not seen before. There is only one way out. Washington must accept the North’s invitation to Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. delegate to the six-party talks, to visit Pyongyang. It would better to visit Pyongyang and negotiate with North Korea if the North moves one step backward and extends a hand of compromise. The U.S. plan to intercept the North Korean missile has high chances of failure. If it fails, the United States will lose face. If the North Korean missile hits the Japanese islands, it could bring about a doomsday catastrophe. It would be difficult for the North Korean economy to survive economic retaliation from the United States and Japan. Dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang is the key to a solution.
Isn’t President Bush a faithful Christian? I wonder if he could start a negotiation on North Korean missiles with the grand idea from Isaiah 2:4: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Kim Jong-il must also change his thinking. He must at least make a symbolic gesture toward feeding his hunger-stricken people by beating his missile into plowshares and pruning hooks.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie