A diplomatic belly flop

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A diplomatic belly flop

The sharp confrontation between South and North Korea spurred by the Cheonan sinking has taken on a new dimension. The South Korean military started a massive joint drill with U.S. forces in the East Sea yesterday to send a stern message to the North against any future provocations. North Korea, in return, vowed to launch a retaliatory strike if the need arises. A war of words also took place at the 17th Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi, which ended yesterday.

But the forum’s presidential statement on the Cheonan incident falls very short of our expectations. First of all, the word “condemn” was missing in the statement. Instead, it simply said, “We express our deep worries and condolences for the Cheonan sinking.” Although the UN Security Council’s presidential statement didn’t specify who was responsible for the incident, it at least still used the word “condemn” to imply that there was obviously an external culprit.

But in the statement released at the Asean Regional Forum, even that kind of association is absent, leaving the cause of the sinking blurry.

The same type of omission can also be found in the forum’s phrasing, which is tied to the six-party talks and achieving the denuclearization of North Korea.

South Korea and the U.S. have already made it clear that the six-party talks can resume only when North Korea demonstrates its genuine will to eliminate its nuclear weapons and related programs. But the forum’s presidential statement “recommends the related parties return to six-party talks,” hinting that the talks can resume even if North Korea reneges on the preconditions set forth by South Korea and the U.S.

The Cheonan sinking was a tragic incident, resulting in the deaths of 46 soldiers. It is shameful that our government failed to overcome North Korea’s strategies to dilute the incident and could not convince other countries at the forum.

This essentially could be regarded as a diplomatic flop. In an earlier meeting in Singapore in 2008, the government had a difficult experience as well. It attempted to include a phrase mentioning the need for resolving the death of a South Korean tourist on Mount Kumgang in a presidential statement, but to no avail. The government failed to deftly deal with Asean nations’ request that a phrase tied to the implementation of the Oct. 4, 2007, declaration between President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il should also be inserted.

The government should have approached the matter more carefully and dexterously from the beginning. The forum’s presidential statement on the Cheonan reminds us of other diplomatic failures.

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