[EDITOR’S COLUMN]Ruing the consequences of ‘bad behavior’Late last month, Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon displayed more of the Roh administration’s “strategic ambiguity,” for want of a better term, about North Korea and Seoul’s policies toward its neighbor.
Mr. Ban told a group of international journalists that the region’s powers ― he was referring to Japan and the United States in particular ― should not try to “corner North Korea into a dead end with no way out.” But he prefaced that comment by saying, “We need to exhibit resolve in denouncing North Korea’s bad behavior.”
Coming from an administration that has been notably unwilling to do any denouncing, this sounds passing strange, and leads to questions about just what that “bad behavior” might be. Well, Mr. Ban said, missile tests were one example. Pyongyang’s July 5 tests were, he said, “highly detrimental and had undermined peace and stability ... in Northeast Asia.”
So far so good, and indeed Seoul did draw back from its almost undignified willingness to shovel aid to the North.
The early-August flooding in North Korea changed things, and it is hard to read too cynically Seoul’s agreement to ship 100,000 tons of rice to the North to make up for losses in that catastrophe. But a little cynicism may still be justified, because Seoul took the initiative to meet with the North to propose those shipments rather than waiting for an appeal from Pyongyang.
It is difficult to see any overarching strategy in Seoul’s policies toward North Korea. There is some economic prudence involved; Seoul hopes that North Korea can be prevented from utterly collapsing to lessen the bill for reunification and reconstruction. But Seoul also assumes that economic development will lead to a gradual liberalization of North Korean society, although there is scant evidence to suggest the North’s elite would countenance that.
There is also an element of romanticism; North Koreans are blood brothers, separated by an unjust division that was out of Koreans’ hands, and both peoples long to return to the fold of a united Korea. That theme has been stressed by the cadre of 1980s revolutionaries that successfully overthrew Korea’s authoritarian administrations and now have become the administration. Those people look with suspicion on the United States in particular as a perpetuator of Korea’s national division and see it, more than Pyongyang, as the biggest obstacle to reunification.
But these revolutionaries seem to have an undeveloped sense of the logical consequences of North Korea’s actions, and they have put Mr. Ban, a pragmatist for the most part, in a difficult position.
What, for example, does the minister mean by the term “denouncing” the North’s bad behavior? It’s probably just a restatement of present policy. It will almost certainly not lead to stronger attempts to seek the return of South Korean prisoners of war or kidnapped civilians from North Korea, which along with the human rights atrocities there should qualify as “bad behavior.” And “denunciations” so far of the North’s weapons programs have been notably ineffective.
That policy seems increasingly out of step with the real world. The fear of North Korean nuclear and missile programs elsewhere is that they could “destabilize” the region, a point we’ll return to in a moment.
In South Korea, the revolutionaries have defused concerns about an attack from their brothers in the North, and only a vocal group of old reactionaries (in the younger policymakers’ view) are raising alarms. But this revisionist thinking is in stark contrast with views elsewhere in the region. For China, North Korea is a useful buffer state, but nuclear weapons or offensive missiles that it cannot control are a serious problem.
That Japan fears a nuclear- or missile-armed North Korea is no surprise. The repeated worries heard from many capitals about missiles or nuclear weapons that “destabilize” Northeast Asia leave unstated what that word means. Bluntly, it means a rearmed and perhaps nuclear-armed Japan.
When North Korea lighted off its warbirds, the reaction in Japan was quick and predestined: calls to scrap its pacifist basic law and debates about whether pre-emptive attacks on North Korea’s missiles would be constitutional. Seoul knew that would happen, just as every capital from Washington to Ouagadougou knew it. The simple logic made the expressions of outrage and horror in Seoul about the perfidious Japanese almost comical. Now the North Koreans are coyly driving around trucks to suggest that a nuclear test might be in store, a former Japanese prime minister asserts that his country should be thinking about the same thing and Seoul again sends a protest to Tokyo.
Guess what will happen if Pyongyang actually tested a nuclear weapon? Does anyone doubt that Japan would declare itself a nuclear state or at least develop some “strategic ambiguity” about such weapons? If that happens, the genie will be well and truly out of the bottle.
If Seoul does not want such an outcome, it had better think quickly of good ways to dissuade Pyongyang from further adventurism even if it is nervous about Beijing’s influence in North Korea. Otherwise, the consequences will not be ones that Seoul would like.
* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by John Hoog