[Viewpoint] MB’s paradoxical diplomacy

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[Viewpoint] MB’s paradoxical diplomacy

The Lee Myung-bak government has been exceptionally bold and confident on the foreign affairs front. It drew clear battle lines over the North Korean issue, offering a no-nonsense ultimatum - complete dismantlement of its nuclear program and opening up in return for extensive financial rewards - under the slogan of “non-nuclear, opening, and $3,000” and “grand bargain,” in place of the unproductive six-party platform. ($3,000 refers to the level of per capita income North Korea would reach after getting the aid from the South.)

It spoke out against China and its due responsibility when Beijing sided with North Korea after the latter’s attack on the Cheonan naval ship and Yeonpyeong Island. President Lee’s tenacious and consistent stance on North Korea ended up changing Washington’s policies on North Korea and six-party talks as well. The South Korean government has never been so daring and assertive.

Unfortunately, the results have not been so good. The hawkish stance on North Korea only hardened the reclusive regime and its wayward ways, putting a full stop to inter-Korean exchanges and trading and culminating in the worst postwar military provocations and tension. Sino-South Korean ties are at their worst since diplomatic relations were normalized 18 years ago.

What’s more worrisome is that the soured relations have pushed China and North Korea closer. Moreover, escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula stoke the hegemonic struggle between the United States and China. Japan, meanwhile, is seeking to capitalize on regional tensions to pursue its own interests.

Seoul has strengthened ties with Washington and Tokyo through large-scale South Korea-U.S. military drills and a foreign ministerial meeting on Dec. 7. But the joint front backfired as China and Russia declared an alliance to back North Korea in the United Nations Security Council. The two countries plan to hold a joint military drill near the border with North Korea in a symbolic response to the South Korea-U.S. exercises.

The Lee Myung-bak administration’s peer-group diplomacy has culminated in a neo-Cold War ideological tug-of-war with South Korea, the U.S. and Japan on one side and China, Russia, and North Korea on the other. The hard-line diplomatic strategy has resulted in disaster and retrogression.

The reason behind the blowback is that the government’s diplomacy lacked deep insight and study. It was rhetorical, impromptu and reactionary. The government responded strongly to the series of North Korean provocations - the killing of a South Korean tourist in Mount Kumgang, the two nuclear tests, maritime skirmishes, the sinking of Cheonan, the new uranium enrichment facility and the Yeonpyeong attack. In the process, it failed to establish a systematic and farsighted diplomatic and security policy, and that caused strategic incoherence and insecurity.

An obsessive attachment to his campaign vows and an innate resistance to the policies of past liberal administrations also limited the government’s maneuvering. President Lee and his aides stubbornly kept to the unrealistic campaign platform of “non-nuclear, opening, and $3,000,” in which the president vowed to hoist up North Korea’s per capita national income to $3,000 within ten years if the regime relinquishes its nuclear weapons and fully opens up.

The government then unilaterally ditched the agreements pledged during the inter-Korean summit in 2007 under the Roh Moo-hyun administration, further irking North Korean leaders. If Seoul kept some of the commitments alive, it may have avoided the current standoff.

Dearth of information in North Korea also played a part. Seoul was so enamored with the scenario that North Korea was on the brink of collapse that it underestimated North Korea’s capacity to sustain itself and failed to read its intentions.

Prejudice, overconfidence, intransigence, wishful thinking and misconception all led to a foolish wait-and-see policy that ended up costing regional security and fragile inter-Korean relations.

It doesn’t mean that there is no way out from the current conundrum. The key lies with President Lee Myung-bak. He must propose reactivating the six-party talks. He should aim to get concrete progress in denuclearizing North Korea through six-party talks ahead of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul next year.

Such efforts cannot take place without improving ties with North Korea. The government must employ stronger ties with the United States to exercise influence over future Washington-Pyongyang relations. Our role will be pivotal in restoring ties with China and averting the neo-Cold War ideological axis.

For now, President Lee is the only person who can turn the tide.

*The writer is a political science professor at Yonsei University.

By Moon Jung-in
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