[Viewpoint] Resolute needn’t be hard-line

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[Viewpoint] Resolute needn’t be hard-line

Authorities will soon announce the results of the investigation into the sinking of the Cheonan warship in the waters near the sea border with North Korea in late March. North Korea is most likely to be named as the guilty party. The president will likely address the nation and explain the country’s official response. A month ago, the president pledged “resolute” action depending on the results of the investigation. Maintaining national security is the primary duty of a state’s chief executive. Each president vows to guard the nation’s security at his swearing-in under Article 69 of the Constitution.

The details and extent of Lee’s “resolute” actions are not yet known. Officials from ministries and agencies from the government as well as the presidential office are likely to be busy working out countermeasures from various angles. The chief presidential secretary on foreign and security affairs will probably act as a traffic controller of various ideas from different offices to provide a decisive voice and influence over the president in coming to a conclusion.

We can imagine the piles of reports stacking up on his desk. Most likely call for hard-line stance. Some may call for military action, such as an air raid against North Korea’s naval base in Haeju on the tip of the southwestern coast, to appease public anger.

Some will argue for suspension of the six-party talks, a diplomatic effort to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear facilities and bring the country closer to the international community, until Pyongyang shows some kind of acceptable remorse in both word and deeds. They will argue that we will be appeasing North Korean violence by sitting across from its representatives in multilateral talks. In fact, the government has already said it will engage in six-party negotiations only after resolving the Cheonan crisis.

There may also be appeals for eye-for-an-eye action, a retaliatory attack on a North Korean naval ship or torpedoing a submarine base, highlighting our advanced submarine capacities that allow such an attack without crossing the sea border.

More moderate recommendations will include stopping all inter-Korean economic exchanges, or choking-off any money stream that can help fund North Korea’s military. The Unification Ministry has already begun advising manufacturers against furthering business projects in North Korea. That bit of advice is understood by the industry as a polite warning. Closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex will likely be among the ideas.

But if permitted, I would like to lay my own report on the chief presidential secretary’s desk suggesting that a hard-line stance isn’t the only answer. I am not saying a hard-line approach is wrong, nor am I trying to be dramatic and saying that such a move will lead to war. I just want to bring attention to the equilibrium rule because all extensive policies come with a price to pay.

We cannot resort to military action. We should punish North Korea, but we must also keep in mind that we need to keep inter-Korean relations alive. A military response will set off shrieking alarm bells on the peninsula, shaking our economy and undermining the success of our hosting of the G-20 Summit conference, which can raise our national status. Moreover, our actions may not be fully supported as we probably won’t be able to know with certainty that North Korea is 100 percent guilty, even if we can prove its involvement 99.9 percent.

We should also continue our commitment to the six-party talks. The naval warship loss is an issue between the two Koreas, but North Korea’s nuclear threat is an international issue. We cannot continue to live with a nuclear threat over our heads. If the six-party talks have run out of gas, we must seek a new platform to address the problem.

We must also be prudent in ending inter-Korean economic relations. It’s a matter that affects hundreds of local companies and millions of workers with business interests in North Korea. It’s also hard to determine how much damage the end of South Korean capital will do to North Korea.

As for the Kaesong venture, the profit our companies make from employing cheap labor is much bigger than their paychecks to North Korean workers. If we don’t intend to engage in inter-Korean economic ventures ever again, we must consider the economic losses from resuming business relations after a certain hiatus.

The senior presidential secretary on foreign and security affairs probably isn’t getting much sleep. But we must have an eye on the future. After we pass the present phase, we will confront another phase. “Resolute” does not always have to be hard-line. What we need now is resolute, but balanced action.

Our message must be clear and irrefutable, but our action must be a reasonable mix of strong and moderate, long-term and short-term measures, in sync with the president’s basic North Korea policy: “Thorough on principle and flexible on approach.”

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.

By Cho Dong-ho
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