[Viewpoint] A Rubicon to be crossed

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[Viewpoint] A Rubicon to be crossed

The heart of statesmanship is policy making. Critical decisions on foreign affairs can whip up tensions among nations when their interests clash. So the key to good statesmanship is making considered, prudent choices for the country.

Nothing illustrates the importance of policy making on international affairs better than Robert Kennedy’s “Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” an account of one of the most dangerous moments in history, in which the two Cold War superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, went to the brink of nuclear war in the summer of 1962.

Kennedy, who was serving as attorney general at the time, recalled how his brother, President John F. Kennedy, agonized over a military strike against the Soviets’ clandestine missile site in Cuba armed with nuclear warheads. The president feared another world war, this time involving nuclear weapons from the very start. He sought a way to get the missiles removed without going to war. He dispatched his brother Robert and State of Secretary Dean Rusk to speak with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, to find out if the Soviets really wanted an all-out war with the U.S.

Dobrynin returned with a message from the Moscow leadership that the missiles in Cuba had been misconceived and that a war was not their plan. More back-channel communications followed and the two countries finally came to a compromise and averted a nuclear war. The events of those 13 days are frequently recounted in political science textbooks.

The episode can also provide a good lesson for the two Koreas, which have been walking on thin ice over nuclear arms for decades. The timing may not be right to try to find out North Korea’s real intentions because the two sides are not even on talking terms after North Korea’s deadly attacks on our Cheonan warship and Yeonpyeong Island. But it is important to maintain unofficial communication channels if the two sides want to resolve anything in the near or the longer term.

President Lee Myung-bak made public his wish to invite North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to the international nuclear security summit in Seoul next year. The invitation was made during Lee’s recent visit to Berlin.

It was his third gesture for a deal with North Korea following his “Vision 3000” initiative, a pledge of economic support in reward for denuclearization, which was promulgated during his election campaign. The so-called Grand Bargain announced in Washington envisioned a package deal - economic support, security guarantees and international aid - in return for an irrevocable dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Will North Korea seriously consider the proposal? Inter-Korean relations could finally move beyond their bottleneck if both sides can ascertain the real intentions behind each other’s words and actions. But with just a year left in the Lee administration’s term, the odds of seeing a major breakthrough in the near future may be slim.

A country’s foreign policy always pursues its own interests. The four other members of the six-party talks - the U.S., China, Japan and Russia - have their own interests and perspectives. But as one of the two direct parties in this conflict, we’re not in the position to strictly adhere to the interests of South Korea alone. We have to take into account the deep-seated emotions that come with dealing with North Koreans who share with us a common ethnic identity and history.

In the Cold War era, everything was black and white. Our security interests were our national interests. But as democracy matured, our society began to question whether such narrow concerns defined our nation’s interests. As a result, our policy on North Korea is always balanced between one-race empathy and our national interests. If the ethnic empathy side of the scale is heavier, North Korea can be justified for any action. But if the side of national interests gains weight, North Korea suddenly becomes our own worst enemy.

Statesmanship on North Korean affairs is inevitably stuck in this conundrum and will likely be a convoluted dilemma until the day of unification. Placing importance on ethnic sympathy toward North Koreans can come at the cost of national interests. But inter-Korean relations could turn cold if we insist on positions that only serve our national interests.

The president’s historical challenge is to balance those two factors and find some kind of middle path. Unfortunately, the current government has not embraced that challenge. A great statesman crosses the Rubicon without considering the depth of the river. Once he or she decides to cross it, they must face any challenges and risks during the journey. Fretting on the shore won’t make the dangers go away. There is no risk-free, half-way approach to North Korean affairs.

The Berlin proposal may become President Lee’s last attempt to cross this particular Rubicon. To reach the other side of the river - or to have a summit that presents a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue - President Lee must marshal the people with an ideological vision that eclipses the battle lines between our anti- and pro-North Korea compatriots.

Even if North Korea agrees to sit down for talks with South Korea on a “sincere” basis, Lee’s proposal could simply lead to another tedious period of tension.

If the government doesn’t want President Lee’s proposal to end as a hollow echo of his two previous ones, it should follow its words with real action.

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

By Chang Dal-joong
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