[Viewpoint] Strategic flexibility for security

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[Viewpoint] Strategic flexibility for security

“The door for dialogue is still open,” President Lee Myung-bak told North Korea in his New Year’s address, adding that “if the North exhibits sincerity, we have both the will and the plan to drastically enhance economic cooperation together with the international community.”

It is an offer to sit down for inter-Korean talks with conditions attached. Lee’s remarks are a response to North Korea’s proposal for dialogue and exchange while issuing more threats in its New Year’s joint editorial. Lee’s strategy seems appropriate for now, particularly the point about leaving the door for dialogue open while maintaining the policy of pressuring the North. And yet, the strategy has its limits, taking into account the U.S. and China’s perceptions on peninsular affairs and the long-term government policy for unification.

The core of U.S. policy toward the Korean Peninsula is “peace with some level of tension.” The primary goal is deterring North Korea’s provocation while checking China and Russia with the U.S.-South Korea alliance. For that goal, tensions are a precondition. At the same time, Washington does not want a full-scale war on the peninsula or a perfect peace. The first is impossible to handle, while the latter would erase the reason for having U.S. troops in Northeast Asia.

That is why the United States has gone back and forth between hard-line and soft policies toward Pyongyang. While a nuclear-powered carrier fleet entered the West Sea in the fallout of the Yeonpyeong Island shelling, Washington persuaded Seoul not to attack the North in retaliation for Pyongyang’s assassination attempt against then-President Chun Doo Hwan in 1983.

China, rather, wants a stabilized Korean Peninsula. The policy was bolstered further after its final decision in late 2009 to “keep North Korea alive.” It has promoted the unreasonable argument that South Korea should tolerate North Korea’s rogue behavior, including the Yeonpyeong shelling, a little bit longer.

China apparently thinks that tensions will be defused if the South, which has stronger power, shows a more flexible attitude toward the North. Beijing’s approach clearly shows that preventing the North’s collapse and U.S. entry to the Yellow Sea are vital to its national interest.

In its joint New Year’s editorial, North Korea said improving its citizens’ quality of life is an urgent task. The North also called on the South to end its hostile policy toward the North, threatening a nuclear holocaust if war were to break out. It is a warning that another Yeonpyeong attack will take place unless the South sends assistance. The position has been expected by most North Korea experts and Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin since last year.

Amid such a complex and delicate equation, what will happen if another provocation takes place while the South does nothing but wait for the North’s sincerity? Perhaps the South will retaliate more properly this time. But China will blame the South for having rejected the North’s offer for dialogue. And the U.S. will fall into deep consideration.

With all this in mind, the policy of former President Park Chung Hee toward North Korea should be considered more seriously. In his Liberation Day address in 1970, Park declared that the competition between the two Koreas should be based on good will, shocking the nation. At the time, North Korea was considered a nation to bring down.

Two years before Park’s address, North Korean special agents attempted to attack the Blue House. While South Koreans’ hostility toward the North peaked, Park recognized the existence of the North Korean system for the first time as a South Korean president and declared a peaceful competition.

Park’s strategic mind-set based on wisdom and farsighted vision is necessary today. An all-out effort is needed to improve South Korea’s military readiness. At the same time, inter-Korean dialogue should be proposed to the North. Officially proposing talks should be viewed as an effective strategy, not an act of indignity.

If North Korea does not accept, the South would gain the upper hand in terms of justification. If the North accepts, the South must manage the current state of division through dialogue, while continuing to bolster its readiness to defend its national security. This will be the path for peaceful unification while uniting South Koreans.

*The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Ahn Hee-chang
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