[Viewpoint]Pragmatism and trustJudging from the phone conversation President-elect Lee Myung-bak had with U.S. President George W. Bush and his remarks at his first official press conference after winning the election, the new government will depart from the self-reliance policy of the Roh Moo-hyun administration. Instead, it will pursue a pragmatic policy with regard to Korea’s relations with the United States and North Korea.
“Koreans traditionally have had high respect for their ties with the United States,” Lee was quoted as telling Bush. Lee also made it clear he would push the North give up its nuclear programs and won’t hesitate to criticize North Korea or point out its faults.
There are, however, two major stumbling blocks to his pragmatic policy.
The progressives at home, embittered by their election defeat, will certainly criticize the policy of restoring traditional ties and rebuilding confidence with the United States, condemning it as a reactionary scheme to return to the past wherein South Korea depended on the United States militarily and economically. They will claim the era of reliance on the United States is over.
Indeed, there have been changes in the Korea-U.S. alliance during the past 10 years, especially under President Roh. Roh did not hesitate to make critical remarks about Korea’s ties with Washington; famously, he once said, “Why shouldn’t we make anti-American remarks?”
The American public reacted angrily to Roh’s remarks and criticized him for disregarding the help the United States gave when it defended the South from communist invasion during the Korean War. But the Bush administration found it easy to negotiate with the Roh administration on such issues as the reduction and redeployment of American troops in Korea, the relocation of U.S. military bases and the transfer of wartime operational control of Korean troops, because the Roh administration was ready to accept such thorny issues even before the U.S. side put forward its proposals.
Thus, U.S. troop forces stationed in South Korea were reduced to 25,000 from 37,000, while the Roh administration emphasized the need to end the era of military reliance on the United States and the need to build up a self-reliant national defense. There is also a plan to redeploy the Eighth U.S. Army, which has been the backbone of military deterrence on the peninsula for more than 50 years, to Hawaii where it will merge with U.S. Army Pacific to serve under the U.S. Pacific Command. This will then support not only military operations on the peninsula, but also other military contingencies in the Pacific area, including in Japan and Taiwan.
We have to also consider the fact that we are bordering China and that the alliance with the United States will have a binding effect on our diplomatic and military options if a military confrontation breaks out between the United States and China. With regard to the economy, Korea’s reliance on the Chinese market has exceeded its reliance on the U.S. economy. And the volume of economic exchanges with China is growing rapidly.
However, even the Roh administration cannot deny that strong ties with Washington are the foundation of Korea’s security and prosperity. It honored its duty as an ally by dispatching troops to Afghanistan and Iraq in compliance with the U.S. demand. It has also signed a free trade agreement with the United States.
Restoring traditional ties with Washington is not necessarily a return to the past. What we need is to restore trust between the people and the two governments that was damaged by the Roh administration’s futile self-reliance policy.
The other stumbling block is the possibility the new policy guidelines will conflict with the Bush administration’s North Korea policy, which gives a priority to the denuclearization of North Korea.
It is possible that Washington will not be in a position to welcome South Korea’s pragmatic approach if North Korea reacts violently against the new policy. North Korea can jeopardize the process of declaring its nuclear facilities which is already in a critical situation as its year-end deadline under a six-party agreement passed. There is also a possibility that the North will boycott the process of disablement of its nuclear facilities. It is ironic, but South Korea’s pragmatic policy toward Washington and Pyongyang can turn out to be unacceptable to the U.S. government.
This strange situation stems from South Korea’s Sunshine Policy toward North Korea. After Washington shifted its policy on the North Korean nuclear issue to a negotiated settlement, the Bush administration found the Roh administration’s engagement and reconciliation policy toward the North was helpful for the U.S. effort to keep the North at the negotiating table. But Washington should be aware that North Korea has already seen through what the Bush administration wants from the North Korean nuclear issue: a diplomatic achievement. Thus the Bush administration induced North Korea to return to the six-party talks, offering to allow North Korean accounts frozen at the Banco Delta Asia in Macao to be freed up.
Perhaps, the next strategic target Kim Jong-il will aim at is to delay the North’s denuclearization process until 2009, when a new U.S. administration will be inaugurated. I sincerely hope the Bush administration does not cling to the idea of winning a diplomatic trophy even if it is being dragged around by North Korea’s delaying tactics.
It is time for Washington and Seoul to restore mutual confidence and upgrade a mutual assistance system for the denuclearization of North Korea. When the Bush administration welcomes the pragmatic policy of Korea’s new government, Pyongyang will realize its delaying tactics will no longer work.
*The writer, a former editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily, is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.
by Park Sung-soo