[Viewpoint] Diplomatic dead end

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[Viewpoint] Diplomatic dead end

Pragmatism is a philosophical concept invented by Americans as a way of discerning the validity and the efficacy of any proposition. When one has to decide to accept or reject an ideology, you must look at the practical consequences of that choice.

Many applauded the Lee Myung-bak government for choosing pragmatism as the backbone of its administration’s policy making process. The public was fatigued by the one-sided ideological leanings of the administrations of the past decade. Ideology dominated unification and diplomatic policies, leaving little room for diplomats to practice pragmatism.

But diplomacy is all about pragmatism. Western and Eastern societies alike pursue their own national interests, even if they are disguised as lofty causes and couched in sugar-coated language.

The president demonstrated pragmatic, business-oriented diplomacy by flying to the Middle East to pitch for reactor contracts on behalf of local companies and deputing his brother to secure resources from overseas. South Korea is now set to be the first emerging country to host and chair a G-20 Summit conference, another sign of the benefits of pragmatic diplomacy.

But more than economic accomplishments, what’s urgently needed in terms of our diplomatic endeavors is progress on the Korean Peninsula. Recent geopolitical circumstances are veering us into uncharted waters. It’s not just because a second father-to-son power transfer in North Korea is imminent after Kim Jong-il met leaders in China allegedly accompanied by his third and youngest son Kim Jong-un. What’s more noteworthy is that a North Korea in China’s rigid embrace is moving further and further away from us. We must reflect on the cause of this gap.

The essence of the Lee government’s policy on North Korea can be encapsulated by denuclearization, opening up and $3,000. It’s a kind of ultimatum posed to North Korea: that if it gives up its nuclear weapons program and opens up, the South will help pull the impoverished economy’s per capita income to $3,000. It’s more rhetorical than practical. North Korea cannot be expected to shutter its nuclear program, which has become the pinnacle of national pride. When he visited Shanghai in 2001, Kim’s jaw may have dropped at its transformation under China’s market economic policies, but he isn’t likely to open up his reclusive state while delicately trying to bequeath power to his son.

The sinking of the Cheonan complicated the diplomatic conundrum with North Korea and China. But diplomacy is about reality and practicality. Look at our policy on North Korea. In exchange for eased tensions, amicability and cooperation, the South did nothing but give things away. When relationship soured, the North quickly cozied up to China and cold shouldered the South. If both carrots (engagement) and sticks (sanctions) don’t work, what options do we have left?

The president suddenly floated the idea of creating a tax to prepare for the immense cost of unifying with an underdeveloped economy. He is entirely right. But when his comment raised controversy, he backtracked saying it was only an idea for discussion.

It’s no surprise that his proposal was met with criticism. Suggesting additional taxes to aid North Koreans while his policy remains stubbornly hawkish is ironic. North Korean policy is too important to be taken so lightly and inconsistently.

Why is a unification tax necessary? The idea is to raise funds prior to unification to advance unification in a form we would like. Once the two countries become one, the cost of running a unified nation would come from government coffers.

Liberal governments in the past have come under fire for being too generous with North Korea because they acted as if they were the only peace-loving and unification-seeking people.

It is our duty to help North Koreans from a humanitarian point of view. The government and charity groups should have donated help when regions near Sinuiju along the border with China were inundated with floods. Some may question why we should offer aid to a country that fatally shot a South Korean citizen touring Mt. Kumgang and attacked one of our naval ships and refuses to apologize. But we cannot act the way they do. To North Koreans hit by flood, on top of a broad food shortage, rice aid should come first. But the government snubbed the idea as soon as it came up. How can it envision a new path to unification with such rigidity and narrow-mindedness? Personal feelings are short-lived, but national interests go a long way.

In an era of diplomacy, we seem to lack skills in diplomacy. We look to the U.S. for security, China for exports, and Japan for imports. A small resource-poor country inevitably has to live on diplomacy, trade and technology. We must build a new consensus to realize unification on the Korean Peninsula based on a strong alliance with the U.S. and consultations with China.

The existing quid pro quo - we will give you aid if you open up and abandon nuclear weapons - cannot work. We must come up with an entirely new and flexible plan.

We’re not going to get anywhere if we insist on an apology for every North Korean provocation. The duck may look peaceful on the surface, but it’s moving its feet underwater like crazy. We must move like crazy to keep North Korea and China within our reach.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is president of the Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation and former president of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kwon Young-bin
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