[Viewpoint] Premature proposalsOvertures and bargaining have cast a new light on the North’s nuclear crisis, which until recently was characterized by missile launches, nuclear tests and international sanctions.
At times like these, the alliance between South Korea and the United States has to stay strong. Officials from the two countries have met and talked often, and we never doubted that the two allies were firmly united.
But it was a shock to hear such a cool response from the U.S. to the speech in New York ahead of the UN General Assembly by President Lee Myung-bak when he spelled out a new proposal to crack the nuclear problem.
Unless Washington has other intentions and motives, the disinterested reaction suggests our diplomatic and security front failed to discuss the details of the plan with their U.S. counterparts.
The so-called “grand bargain” President Lee has suggested is basically no different from the “package deal” sought by the Obama administration in aiding the North in return for denuclearization. It proposes to replace the past time-consuming procedure where South Korea and the United States compensated North Korea each time it took actions toward disarming with a single aid-for-denuclearization step.
The action should culminate in a normalization of ties between North Korea and the United States, a peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula and much-needed economic aid for the impoverished state. The improved ties between the North and the United States and a peace agreement would guarantee the security of the communist regime.
President Lee’s proposal is a significant turnaround in his North Korean policy.
By placing higher priority on economic development in the North over reunification, he is following the basic philosophy of former President Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine policy,” which aimed to install peace ahead of unification.
It is radical rhetoric coming from a conservative president. President Lee has been firm in his hard-line stance against North Korea since taking office. He has emphasized that free democracy must be the backbone of a unified Korea, suggesting a two-track ideology is unacceptable as unification option. Unification based on free democracy would mean that any economic aid would serve as instrumental in preparing the North Korean economy for smoother integration.
His security aides have joined the hawkish rhetoric by accusing the North of aiming nuclear weapons at the South, suspecting military motives behind the recent release of dam water and deriding the latest charm offensive by North Korean Kim Jong-il as part of a strategy.
But President Lee’s comments in New York signify an appeasement in a hitherto intransigent position against North Korea. Pyongyang has yet to respond, but it is undeniable that Seoul has turned a new leaf. That’s why the cold response to Seoul’s new direction from the Obama administration comes as a shock.
Comments like “It’s his policy,” “It’s the first time we’ve heard about it” and “it seems far-fetched” from senior Washington officials are expected between the United States and North Korea, not between allies. The foreign ministry hurriedly added that it has explained President Lee’s ideas to the U.S. embassy and that it may not have been reported to the higher positions.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, however, said he heard nothing about Lee’s speech when he met earlier with Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan.
Lee’s comprehensive approach contains both merits and drawbacks. The improvement is indeed a shift in the hard-line position, but North Korea has undergone several changes recently.
First of all, the pain from an international trade ban and sanctions has taken its toll.
Secondly, its leader Kim has returned to the political and diplomatic scene in better health. He invited President Bill Clinton to hand over the detained American journalists, sent South Korean corporate staff and fishermen home and conveyed a verbal message to Seoul through a delegation paying respect to a former South Korean president as a part of his new offensive of conciliation.
The drawback to President Lee’s proposal is that it lacks reality in view of the intricate nature of denuclearization procedures.
Even if the parties agree to swap economic aid and security guarantees with nuclear dismantlement in one go, the actual steps to destroy nuclear facilities would have to be gradual. North Korea can well use the old trick of delaying and bargaining for more at every step.
The six-party agreement in February 2007 to dismantle nuclear sites has not materialized because it is a step-by-step process. It failed because the international parties poorly handled the inspection problem between the disarming and disabling stage.
Seoul and Washington must sit down and hammer out a workable offer, bundling the merits of comprehensive and incremental approaches.
The South must restore bilateral relations first and be more persuasive towards the North.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Young-hie