[Viewpoint]A policy of balanceThere are increasing signs that inter-Korean relations could take a serious downturn.
Many people are watching nervously as the North Korea policy of the new government of President Lee Myung-bak unfolds.
There is a feeling that tension between the South and the North is gradually rising and could even dampen government efforts to revive the economy.
Defining the new government as “the conservative forces in power,” North Korea has started to unleash a barrage of criticism against the South.
The North denounced the South’s demand for improvement in the human rights situation in North Korea and its participation in an annual joint Korea-U.S. military exercise.
Adding to the unease, North Korea carried out a large-scale military exercise of its own, firing coastal guns deployed along the West Coast on March 2.
Some people simply consider this the normal reaction of North Korea, but it is not something to be taken lightly.
Moreover, we now hear voices warning against possible provocative action by North Korea in the West Sea.
Another factor adding to our unease is that the pool of human resources in the Lee administration is unexpectedly small and its policy guidelines are rigid and biased.
Frankly, the line-up of cabinet ministers and senior presidential secretaries in charge of foreign affairs, security and national unification makes us doubt the new government’s capacity to handle matters related to inter-Korean relations.
What is worrisome is the criticism that Lee’s team has plenty of specialists in diplomatic affairs but few experts on inter-Korean affairs.
Considering the fact that the problems related to the two Koreas are difficult to solve with only diplomacy and international cooperation, it is troubling that officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been given elevated status in the government to the detriment of North Korea specialists.
In addition, the new government’s basic guidelines on North Korea policy make many people shake their heads in confusion.
Except for putting an emphasis on Korea-U.S. relations, the new administration has no detailed strategy for solving the complex tangle of problems surrounding North Korea.
We only see an abstract vision ― a policy for denuclearization, opening doors and someday raising the per capita income in the North to $3,000.
The administration must present answers to these criticisms, but it has not been able to present realistic solutions so far.
There is no way to know if, as some people suggest, the current policy is simply a gesture aimed at securing victory in the April general elections, or a strategic move to try and strengthen cooperation with Washington.
Of course the Lee administration has been trying hard to emphasize from its inception that it is different from the previous government and that it is determined to tame North Korea.
In foreign policy, so far that comes down to putting all its efforts into the alliance with the United States and demanding progress from Pyongyang on human rights.
We need to evaluate to what extent these early efforts will contribute to an actual solution to the urgent North Korean nuclear problem.
It is also necessary to consider whether this is an opportune time to be stepping up the pressure on North Korea.
U.S. President George W. Bush has said that solving the North Korea nuclear dilemma is one of the major international tasks that must be successfully addressed by the end of his term. He is making every effort to make North Korea comply with its earlier agreements by finally declaring all of its nuclear programs by the end of March.
But it is not clear that the Lee Myung-bak administration is responding correctly to this emphasis from Washington. The message the Blue House is sending to North Korea so far is both vague and confusing.
Although all past administrations, without exception, have tried, out of excessive zeal, to differentiate their approaches to the North early on from their predeccesors, the lesson they learned has almost always been the same.
This is that relations have to improve between both Koreas and the United States. Only when relations are relatively smooth between all parties will it be possible to make a genuine leap forward toward the achievement of sustainable long-term peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.
Needless to say, this is easier said than done.
According to our past experiences, we must accommodate some tension between the South and the North if we are to improve Korea-U.S. relations.
On the other hand, it is unavoidable that we would experience uneasy South Korea-U.S. relations if ties between the two Koreas improve too quickly. This is like the trade-off that exists between inflation and unemployment ―a balance needs to be struck.
If the new administration is going to be successful in its relations with both Washington and Pyongyang, policy-makers must establish the right balance.
In this context, the government should refrain from making biased personnel appointments and adopting policy guidelines that focus only on international cooperation.
In addition, instead of causing unnecessary conflict by creating problems related to North Korea early in its term, it should be able to cope with the situation flexibly through a variety of different policy options. Creative thinking is required.
At a minimum, the new government must provide a mutually reliable channel for dialogue between South and North Korea that can be relied upon in a time of crisis.
*The writer is a professor at Kyungnam University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lim Eul-chul