[Viewpoint] Grand bargain remains a tough sell

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[Viewpoint] Grand bargain remains a tough sell

As the year-end shopping season is just around the corner, department stores are busy preparing their grand bargains, just as President Lee Myung-bak is promoting his “grand bargain” with North Korea.

He reportedly requested that Stephen Bosworth, the United States’ special representative for North Korea policy who will visit Pyongyang on Dec. 8, sell the North on the idea.

I am afraid, however, that President Lee’s grand bargain will meet the same fate as the grand canal project he was promoting when he assumed office.

President Lee was elected after promising that he would dig a “Grand Korean Canal” that would run through the southern half of the peninsula from Incheon to Busan.

After his election, however, the canal project provoked strong criticism from both the opposition and the public, and he had to cancel it at a special press conference he called in June last year.

The grand canal project was an ambitious plan that the president wanted to accomplish so that it could go down in history as a major achievement of his presidency, like the
Cheonggye Stream restoration project during his tenure as Seoul mayor. Of course, he must feel sorry he failed.

The proponents of the grand canal project may claim it was a great loss for the nation and that the benefits in logistics, transportation and tourism outweighed its costs. But however profitable a project may be, it will be foiled if the public opposes it.

President Lee’s grand bargain has even bigger problems. It will be a problem if the North rejects it. And it will also be a problem even if the North accepts it.

First of all, the possibility is very low that the North will accept the grand bargain as a viable negotiating option for denuclearization. On Sept. 30, right after President Lee proposed the grand bargain in New York, the North’s Korean Central News Agency reported that such a deal would “do more harm than good on the nuclear issue” and that it was “intended to obstruct the resolution of the nuclear issue by intervening in the negotiations between the United States and North Korea.”

In October, the agency rejected the grand bargain flat out, labeling it “an empty dream.”

It was anticipated that the North would reject any bargain, no matter how grand, that required it to dismantle its nuclear program before seeing any benefits. North Korea has consistently demanded a guarantee of the regime’s safety first.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il told Premier Wen Jiabao of China, who visited Pyongyang in early October, that for the North to dismantle its nuclear program, “the hostile relations between the United States and North Korea should be changed first.”

Later, the Rodong Shinmun, the organ of the North Korean Workers’ Party, further explained that the basic principles for nuclear disarmament were “the withdrawal of the hostile policy of the United States toward North Korea and the replacement of the armistice agreement with a peace treaty.”

In other words, they demand the disbanding of the U.S.-Korea alliance and withdrawal of the U.S. forces in Korea. Apparently, these are conditions that South Korea and the United States cannot accept.

Nowadays, however, there are indications that both Washington and Seoul are considering a change in their position. Clearly, they are considering, as a reward for dismantling its nuclear development program, options related to recognition of the current North Korean leadership under Kim Jong-il.

Recently, Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, admitted that the U.S. would consider providing diplomatic recognition, a peace treaty and economic packages to the North if the country fulfilled its denuclearization obligations.

Judging from recent changes, it seems that Washington and Seoul will soon put proposals on the table that accede to the North’s demands, including a peace treaty.

In that case, President Lee’s grand bargain will also include the same proposals in it, and the North would be induced to buy.

But there are more obstacles that could arise on the domestic front. The Lee Myung-bak government will confront even stronger opposition than when it tried to launch the grand canal project last year. The public will protest even more violently than they did against that project.

The belief that U.S. Forces Korea is the tripwire that restrains military provocation from the North is deeply instilled in the minds of the people, who suffered devastation during the Korean War. The slightest suggestion of a withdrawal or reduction in U.S. troops would create a panic over security.

There is even the possibility that some radical rightists would react hysterically and attempt to set themselves on fire.

Considering that wartime operational control will be transferred to South Korea in 2012, when Washington will restructure American military forces in Korea for greater strategic flexibility, and that the self-defense capability of South Korean forces has been greatly enhanced by the modernization program, the withdrawal or reduction of U.S. Forces Korea in the foreseeable future is inevitable.

But the problem is that the government has to create a consensus among the people now, in the absence of prior publicity efforts.

Some people are likely to be enraged when they realize that such a basic change, one that will affect South Korea’s national security so profoundly, has been hidden behind the ambiguous English phrase “grand bargain.”

In general, Korean people in leadership positions are fond of big, vague expressions and, especially, foreign words. But they often do not understand the exact meanings of these foreign expressions.

Even the advisers who recommend they use these sound bites often seem to have no clear idea about the content.

The government should explain, however belatedly, the measures Washington and Seoul are considering taking in exchange for the North’s dismantlement of its nuclear program, and get consent from the people.

The people have the right to know what changes may take place in the status of the U.S.-Korea alliance and in the role of the U.S. Forces Korea, if the government decides to accommodate the North’s demands in exchange for removing all nuclear weapons, material and facilities.

This proposal that will deeply affect national security and the economy should not be concealed under the vague foreign expression “grand bargain.”

As the grand canal project was doomed due to a lack of public consensus, so the grand bargain will face deadlock if the people rise up against it.

*The writer is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.

by Park Sung-soo
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