[Outlook]Korea’s roles in the region

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[Outlook]Korea’s roles in the region

A new era has begun. Just as the history of the world is divided between before Christ and after Christ, some say that the history of international politics will be divided into before and after Obama. This implies that Barack Obama, the American president-elect, will be a savior who has come to rescue humankind.

But too much expectation often leads to disappointment. Instead of getting caught up in the hype, now is the time to carefully predict how the Obama administration’s foreign affairs policy will take shape, and to prepare ourselves for that.

Since he became the Democratic presidential candidate, Obama has argued for the necessity of direct diplomacy in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.

That means that instead of avoiding meeting the leader of the so-called rogue state as if it were a taboo, he’d rather sit down with Kim Jong-il face-to-face to resolve complicated issues.

Obama emphasizes the power of diplomacy, not diplomacy based on power. If an Obama doctrine is presented later, the keys would be meeting with top leaders of North Korea, Iran and Syria in face-to-face negotiations.

For the Lee Myung-bak administration, there is no reason to oppose that type of approach. Based on a firm Korea?U.S. alliance, the government should revitalize dialogue with North Korea and also with the United States, in order to induce North Korea to denuclearize and open its doors.

Some South Koreans are worried that Pyongyang will improve relations with Washington while distancing itself from the South, maintaining that inter-Korean relations must be improved quickly. They argue that if North Korea and the U.S. improve their ties while things grow sour on the peninsula, the South will end up isolated.

However, if dialogue between North Korea and the U.S. proceeds in a well-planned manner based on firm cooperation between the U.S. and the South, a temporary freezing over of inter-Korean relations can be tolerated. As revealed in the Lee administration’s strategy of leading North Korea to denuclearize and open up to the world, South Korea is the country that will help the North when the nuclear issue is resolved and it wants to come out of its shell. And North Korea is aware of this. If Pyongyang truly gives up its nuclear ambitions through the six-party talks and bilateral discussions between it and the U.S., there will be no reason for the North to try to get closer to the United States and isolate South Korea.

Thus, what we need is for the Lee and Obama administrations to draw up a joint road map. The South must be firm in the conviction that it can’t hold talks with North Korea and peace can’t be achieved as long as the North possesses nuclear weapons. With this stance, the South Korean government must work with the U.S. presidential transition team on what type of North Korea policy is needed.

Seoul should understand that even the Obama administration won’t be able to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue within one or two years. In the meantime, it should maximize cooperation with the United States.

But North Korea policy aside, there are many other points to work on in the South Korea?U.S. alliance. In April of this year, President Lee and U.S. President George W. Bush agreed to build a strategic alliance for the 21st century as a vision for the alliance. The essence of the strategic alliance is to develop the relationship comprehensively, not only in militaristic terms, but also when it comes to politics, the economy and culture.

If this is truly realized, the span of the alliance will spill out beyond the Korean Peninsula and make contributions to peace and prosperity in not only the Asia?Pacific region, but in the entire world.

President-elect Obama also emphasized that the alliance should play its due role in the region and the world, so the basic purpose of the Lee?Bush agreement will likely be sustained.

However, one shouldn’t be blinded by the illusion that the South Korea?U.S. alliance will be without its problems. When handling specifics, the U.S. will require that each country share the burden. It might require that we pay more for defense costs. If the U.S. moves the center of the war on terrorism to Afghanistan, there is a possibility that Washington would require Seoul to again send over some troops.

We should discern what we can do from what we can’t, and prioritize tasks so that we can actively express our opinion on the content of the strategic alliance. Instead of trying to find the human network that leads to Obama, it is much more important to understand that a strategic approach by the Lee administration will benefit both South Korea and the United States.

*The writer is a professor of international politics at the Division of International Studies of Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Sung-han
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