[Viewepoint] Creative options a mustAlthough North Korea launched brutal military attacks against South Korea twice this year and showed a new, modern uranium enrichment facility to a visiting scientist in defiance of UN resolutions, the country has not faced any new sanctions so far. Moreover, Pyongyang is about to achieve a diplomatic home-run with the likely resumption of six-party talks without paying any price for its military provocations, because China wants them to be held.
Internationally, the voice that demands the United States and South Korea change their North Korea policies, which should be more muted than legitimate criticisms of North Korea’s provocations, is growing louder. It demands that Washington and Seoul resume six-party talks without preconditions, which should logically be the dismantling of the North’s nuclear development program, apologies to the victims of the Cheonan sinking, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and a promise that North Korea will eschew further armed provocations.
But the talks were proposed by China and accepted by North Korea. It seems that the North wants to return to the negotiating table without losing any face. And China has opened the way for the North.
If the six-party talks are resumed without preconditions, it spells a diplomatic triumph for North Korea. It is equivalent to rewarding a wrongdoer with asking him to pay nothing. The six-party talks are basically failed negotiations that were called off by North Korea four times in the past. After the North withdrew in April 2009, declaring that it would “never again” participate in the talks, the negotiations became defunct. North Korea gains power now, because the U.S. and South Korea have failed to provide viable military and diplomatic options.
On the other hand, the UN Security Council adopted two strong resolutions to sanction North Korea’s underground nuclear tests, imposing an arms embargo, export controls, inspections of cargo in and out of the North, financial and economic sanctions and a naval blockade.
The council also adopted two chairman’s statements that condemned North Korea for launching a long-range rocket in 2009 and sinking the South Korean battleship Cheonan in March this year. If the North wants to return to the talks, it should first fulfill the UN resolutions.
Nevertheless, China, a permanent member of the Security Council, proposes an unconditional resumption of the talks. Of course, the U.S., South Korea and Japan rejected it.
The problem is that the call gathers strength as time goes by. In the United States, the North Korea policy of the Obama administration is regarded as a failure, and “strategic patience” is considered naive. President Lee Myung-bak’s North Korea policy is also taking flak. Critics say that his hard-line North Korea policy should be revised because there has been no progress in inter-Korean relations. Here, too, it seems North Korea will win a diplomatic victory.
How can such an impasse arise? The diplomatic offensives by the North, with the help of China and Russia, and the publicity gained by inviting New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and a CNN news team to Pyongyang had an effect on international opinion.
Let us look at the measures the South and the North took after the Yeonpyeong Island shelling. The South started by replacing the defense minister, holding him responsible for the controversy of whether President Lee had ordered “to respond resolutely, but refrain from escalation.” Then, the whole nation hotly debated the level of military actions the South should take in retaliation to the North’s provocations. After that, South Koreans became preoccupied with military options, such as the joint U.S.-South Korea naval exercise in the Yellow Sea and the artillery drill by South Korean troops on Yeonpyeong Island.
The only diplomatic action South Korea took was participation in the foreign ministers’ meeting of the United States, South Korea and Japan in Washington on Dec. 5, which decided to not take the Yeonpyeong issue to the UN Security Council.
On the other hand, North Korea dispatched special envoys to China and Russia to explain the incident. For the United States’ sake, North Korea engineered publicity by inviting Bill Richardson, North Korea’s guardian angel, and a CNN news team to Pyongyang.
Of course, there was a big difference in the results between the passive measures the South took and the active diplomatic and publicity offensives the North staged. By responding positively to the Chinese proposal for the six-party talks, Pyongyang gets exempted from responsibility for armed provocations and will get a chance for direct talks with Washington. The North had even induced Russia to initiate a chairman’s statement at the Security Council demanding South Korea stop the artillery drill on Yeonpyeong Island.
What enables North Korea and China to take diplomatic offensives like that? Is it because the United States relies on China in solving problems related to Pyongyang? The United States and South Korea do not have a viable military option with which they can deal with North Korea. Diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions, such as export controls, financial sanctions and a blockade, are not that effective. Therefore, the United States has been asking China to exercise its influence on North Korea.
South Korea and the U.S. should produce viable military and diplomatic options. Otherwise, the call for the resumption of six-party talks without precondition will gain strength. According to a U.S. embassy paper leaked by WikiLeaks, Chinese officials said South Korean officials lacked in creativity. “The South Koreans have plenty of ideas, but we’ve heard them all before,” the Chinese said.
The ultimate ways to handle the North are firm determination and patience. There are limits to North Korea’s military, economic and diplomatic strengths. If the South grasps and utilizes those limits, it can pressure the North effectively in various creative ways. South Korea and the U.S. should come up with creative military and diplomatic options.
*The writer is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.
By Park Sung-soo