[Viewpoint] We can’t wait in the wings

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[Viewpoint] We can’t wait in the wings

‘Policy is like a play in many acts which unfolds inevitably once the curtain is raised,” wrote Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich, who helped reshape 19th-century Europe. “To declare then that the performance will not take place is an absurdity. The play will go on ... either by the means of actors, or by means of the spectators who mount the stage ... the essence of the problem lies in the decision whether the curtain is to be raised at all.”

Representatives of European powers gathered in Vienna in 1814 for an international congress to restructure the continent after the Napoleonic Wars. To raise the curtain among those destabilized and suspicious states took immense effort. Even after the curtain was raised, the former allies in war disagreed over everything because of deep distrust between revolutionary and conservative forces.

The effort to reach a settlement went on for a year, turning Vienna into a party frenzy with balls and festivals to keep the diplomats entertained. Thus the famous quote was born: “Le congres danse beaucoup, mais il ne marche pas” - “The congress dances but does not progress.”

But thanks to a diplomacy master, Metternich, the congress finally reached an agreement on a balance of power, creating the longest period of peace in Europe.

An ardent fan of Metternich, Henry Kissinger applied the art of delicate diplomacy and helped raise a new curtain for the United States in its policy on communist China in 1971. We emulated that policy by opening up to North Korea in 1972. The following act was the South Korea-North Korea Joint Declaration that set the basic grounds for inter-Korean ties after the first summit in 2000 and the Peace Declaration after a second summit in 2007.

But our current situation goes back to the congress that dances but goes in no particular direction. One foreign commentator said the diplomatic drama on the Korean Peninsula following the sinking of South Korean naval ship Cheonan reminded him of the Vienna Congress - a clash of powers struggling to gain control in the region. The Korean Peninsula once again is clouded by hostility and uncertainties.

Is it a wishful thinking to hope for a new curtain to be raised in the region? We revisit this frustrating question after ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il made a mysterious trip to China. The local press is busy hyping the tensions and dangers in the region.

Inter-Korean relations have always swung like a pendulum. During a decade under liberal governments, North Korea was romanticized to some extent. Kim Jong-il was portrayed as a reasonable dialogue partner. Once the conservatives came on the stage, North Korea suddenly became the evil party led by Kim.

But Kim’s recent trip to China was an upset to the other players and spectators alike. A new stage may be in the making with North Korea and China taking co-starring roles. North Korea may be preparing a new act orchestrated by pro-Chinese statesmen. Our all-for-nothing policy on North Korea may have no part in this play.

For the last two years, the government has been experimenting with neoconservative ideology on inter-Korean relations, accompanied by a rigid policy demanding complete surrender from the North. It refused to be content with limited progress, allowing no room for diplomatic maneuvers and efforts.

The black-and-white yardstick on North Korea narrowed our options further following the Cheonan sinking. It transformed China into the bad guy for taking sides with the enemy, North Korea. Ironically, the situation only pushed the two closer. The Korean Peninsula, which had been trying to shake off the ghost of the Cold War, is now haunted by a new ideological specter.

The new chumminess between North Korea and China may not be as perilous as the old ghost, but it may be a troublesome chord portending a tragedy in the following act.

It is up to China and North Korea to set the next stage for six-party denuclearization talks. We should jump into the act in order to prevent an unfavorable turn. Once the curtain is raised, we cannot know what will follow and how it all ends.

But one thing is for sure. We cannot continue insisting on the infeasible “aid-for-denuclearization” script when the play is poised to go on without us. Policy makers and the public alike will have to wake up from their sentimental dream about North Korea. The situation is too grave to stick to the old tune. We must steal back the spotlight and take the lead in the new dance with North Korea.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Chang Dal-joong
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