[Viewpoint] It’s engagement time

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[Viewpoint] It’s engagement time

The United States reportedly offered some criticism about Seoul’s North Korea policy when Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Kim Sung-hwan and the Blue House secretary for national security strategy visited Washington.

The U.S. has made it clear to the North Koreans that they will talk to them after inter-Korean relations see a bit of forward progress.

And at the same time, the U.S. had a message for Seoul. They said South Korea’s policy over the past three years, during which it had no engagement whatsoever with the North, is undesirable. Washington wants Seoul to make some tangible efforts to improve its relations with Pyongyang.

It’s obvious that next year’s presidential election in the United States is the context for Washington’s shift in position because up until now, it has fully supported the Lee Myung-bak administration’s North Korea policy. The Obama administration must believe that any attack by the North, or any nuclear test, will be a serious problem for its campaign.

If something like that happens, the administration will have trouble focusing on the campaign, and President Barack Obama will face criticism from his opponents about his North Korea strategy. Furthermore, escalated tension on the Korean Peninsula directly clashes with the national interests of the U.S.

The United States has no territory in Northeast Asia and, to use an old chestnut, the “right amount of tension” on the Korean Peninsula is desirable for it. That allows the United States to intervene in regional affairs and keep a check on China and its rapidly developing military. That Northeast Asia strategy has become the norm in recent decades, and Obama has done nothing to change it.

When inter-Korean relations warmed up quickly during the Kim Dae-jung administration, the United States once asked Seoul to tone down a ceremony celebrating the link between the two Koreas’ railways because it was worried about “too much” peace in the air. Now it’s Washington asking Seoul to improve inter-Korean relations because it’s worried about too much tension.

Inter-Korean tensions are indeed mounting. North Korea has ignored diplomatic courtesies and revealed details of what it claimed were behind-the-scenes contacts between the two governments. It is using nasty words to attack South Korea’s president and is issuing one threat after another.

Washington is asking to Seoul to show some flexibility to prevent the situation from worsening, although it knows full well that Pyongyang is troublesome.

The ball is now in South Korea’s court. The Lee administration is divided over a strategy to separately handle the six-party nuclear disarmament talks and the two attacks by North Korea last year - the sinking of the warship Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. The time to make a decision is nigh and it should be decided that Seoul handle the two issues separately.

We must use all means at our disposal to resolve the nuclear issue. Before we consider a military option, there are various carrots and sticks we can offer and wield. Demanding some kind of “sincere” or “genuine” attitude from Pyongyang before any progress can be made is the worst policy.

It was especially unreasonable to link the Cheonan’s sinking and Yeonpyeong Island shelling with the inter-Korean chief delegates’ talks, the preliminary step to six-party negotiations.

Of course, there’s one good reason to persistently demand apologies for the North’s two deadly attacks: Pyongyang probably won’t be able to treat Seoul as casually as before.

But the priority now is to resolve the nuclear crisis. It will not help our security or the U.S.-South Korea alliance to keep ignoring the reality that the North’s nuclear capabilities are growing every day.

The moment has come for us to manage inter-Korean relations within a larger framework by engaging the North and finding a diplomatic venue where it can express its position on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island.

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

By Ahn Hee-chang
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