[VIEWPOINT]Let the South lead talks with the NorthThe missiles launched by North Korea were not exactly the sort of Fourth of July celebration welcomed by Americans or the world at large. The move by the bizarre totalitarian regime in Pyongyang was also no great departure from its normal behavior, but rather the latest in a series of steps to ratchet up tensions.
President George W. Bush should be applauded for a cautious reaction to the Korean move, stressing the importance of international rather than unilateral action. The administration clearly wants to work within the context of the United Nations, in contrast to its actions regarding Iraq.
Ideally, diplomacy will result in economic sanctions that will bite the already beleaguered North Korea.
The rocket rattling by North Korea, even if based on apparently unreliable technology, has much greater implications for South Korea ― and Japan ― than for the United States.
South Korea has declared an end to humanitarian assistance to the North, though some shipments continue.
Last year this involved 500,000 tons of rice and 350,000 tons of fertilizer. Other economic projects will continue, along with general reconciliation negotiations.
President Roh Moo-hyun has generally been cautious in dealing with the North.
An important corollary to a coalition diplomacy strategy should be to encourage Seoul to take the lead in dealing with Pyongyang.
An aggressive direct approach by Washington to North Korea would not only reinforce Pyongyang’s behavior, but would risk the alliance with the South.
A focus on South Korea would be congruent with one of the most durable successful strategies of the United States, dating back to early in the Cold War.
When the Korean War began in 1950, U.S.-Soviet tensions were intense, reinforced by nuclear weapons. President Harry S Truman nonetheless acted very decisively, under UN authorization, to defend the South against invasion by the North.
That war confirmed the United States’ commitment to a policy of containment and underscored diplomatic complexities.
We did not liberate the North but did successfully defend the South. Continued determination has kept the peace for more than half a century. Through these years, Washington has been consistent in encouraging, but not dominating, the development of South Korea.
When the next major hot war of the Cold War unfolded, in Vietnam, South Korea repaid American support. Throughout our direct military involvement, Seoul maintained approximately 50,000 combat troops by the side of the Americans and South Vietnamese, motivated purely by loyalty to the U.S.
South Korea also has performed a modernization miracle, moving in a relatively short period of time from peasant autocracy to an extraordinarily prosperous democracy.
In 1960, South Korea’s per capita income was on a par with Burma, far below industrialized nations. A quarter century later, the economy was the 11th largest in the world, and has continued to grow rapidly.
Diplomatic distance between Seoul and Washington can only strengthen Beijing as China steadily expands in economic ― and military ― might.
Fully 20 percent of South Korea’s exports are now going to China, and that trend will only continue to grow. Bush administration complaints about China’s expanding military strength, highlighted in particular by U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, underscore this problem.
Washington should encourage Seoul to lead in dealing with Pyongyang. If the North is ever to be reformed, the South must play a central role.
In a democracy, public opinion can easily drive policy. South Korean opinion is highly critical of President Roh for not reacting more forcefully to Pyongyang’s latest affront.
He must address this for domestic political as well as foreign policy reasons.
* The writer is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin and author of ‘After the Cold War’ (NYU Press).
by Arthur I. Cyr