[Viewpoint] Be flexible on North Korea

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[Viewpoint] Be flexible on North Korea

“North Korean leader Kim Jong-il pledges commitment to denuclearization at the international nuclear security summit in Seoul.”

“The United States and North Korea agree to normalize diplomatic ties in a summit between President Barack Obama and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.”

“President Lee Myung-bak and North Korea’s Kim agree to improve inter-Korean relations and support for North Korea’s opening and reform measures.”

A new beginning would be in the works if these headlines dominate the morning news next March 27. President Lee Myung-bak will write his name in history for creating a pivotal turning point for the two Koreas as well as for the rest of the world. All of this may be in the realm of imagination, but it isn’t entirely impossible if we focus on all our diplomatic creativity and endeavors.

We also need one more element to make this dream come true - sincerity. During his recent visit to Berlin, Lee officially invited Kim to next year’s nuclear security summit in Seoul. The conference on March 26, 2012, coincidentally is the second anniversary of the sinking of the Cheonan warship, which claimed the lives of 46 sailors near the disputed Yellow Sea maritime border.

Many are skeptical of whether Kim will accept the invitation to come to Seoul, especially as Pyongyang denies any role in the Cheonan sinking. Some suspect President Lee of throwing a feigned conciliatory gesture to which Pyongyang cannot respond and build instead an international consensus to push for stronger pressure against North Korea. Without clearing up these suspicions, President Lee’s proposal will be forgotten as a mere publicity stunt.

Kim will be hardly expected to come to Seoul as long as President Lee’s precondition - sincere acknowledgment and apology for the attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island - is valid. It will be perfect if Pyongyang would just forthrightly express regret for its past behavior and move on to improve ties with Seoul and the rest of the world. But it does not work that way in the real world. It is time we re-examine our options and principles to prioritize our national interests.

In his latest book “On China,” former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger provides a kind of answer to states facing difficult diplomatic choices and dilemmas. In reviewing his experience of orchestrating President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, Kissinger said Washington decided to strike an alliance with Beijing because it would be “against American interests” for China to be defeated by the Soviets, who were seen as the more dangerous party, and because the Sino-U.S. alliance would continue no matter what.

Kissinger also credits former President Jimmy Carter for normalizing ties with China despite questions over human rights issues, and George H. W. Bush for sustaining amicable relations with Beijing even though he pursued diplomacy based on American values. At times, what serves national interests should come before principles and values.

Nothing can be gained without a process. The Lee administration has been campaigning for a fast package deal - denuclearization and dismantling of nuclear arms in return for financial and economic aid, security guarantees and international ties and aid - to solve the nuclear problem. It cited fatigue from the tedious temporizing and “salami” tactics by North Korea over the years.

But we can hardly anticipate such an ideal package deal under the current hostilities and tension between the two Koreas. We sometimes have to swallow rage and frustration and exercise perseverance to build trust for the sake of “strategic interests.”

The two Koreas must return to the dialogue table. There should not be any conditions attached. They should meet first and say and hear what needs to be said and heard. Apologies can be produced from such a dialogue. Pyongyang has repeatedly hinted at hopes for renewing talks with Seoul. Despite the suspension of inter-Korean dialogue, the joint-venture Kaesong Industrial Complex is still in business.

South Korea cannot sit on the sidelines while the international community prepares to renew humanitarian aid to starving North Koreans. It should also maintain the leading role ahead of Pyongyang-Washington talks and six-party negotiations through prior inter-Korean talks. We must continue back-channel communications with North Korea to be active in future developments.

The government has set the condition that North Korea can join the nuclear security summit if it sincerely declares it will surrender its nuclear weapons program. But such a commitment would only be legitimized through the six-party platform. The procedures and details should be formulated in six-party negotiations and proclaimed at an international forum such as the nuclear security summit.

North Korea curbed provocative actions when the six-party negotiations were underway. It turned maverick to gain the upper hand when the talks hit a stalemate and came under pressure. We need to reactivate the incremental procedure to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program. A miraculous result at the nuclear security summit would be only possible through such a method. There is still a chance for President Lee to make history.

Blue House aides should think about what type of legacy President Lee wants to leave when he steps down. Safeguarding one’s principles does not justify a failed policy. They have little time left. Policy makers should use what’s left more creatively.

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

By Moon Chung-in
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