[Viewpoint] Peeking behind the mask

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[Viewpoint] Peeking behind the mask

A new act in the Korean mask play has begun. Performers from South and North Korea are returning to the stage to resume the nuclear weapons drama, their real faces hidden behind masks. All the six-party talks of the past, which were supposed to be negotiating an end to the North’s nuclear weapons program, have given North Korea time to seek what they are really after - more nuclear weapons.

They have developed nuclear fuel, not only from enriched plutonium but also uranium. When the conservative government came to power in Seoul, it instituted a hard-line policy by cutting off all ties with Pyongyang. It expected an economic squeeze would force North Korea to be more real about denuclearization.

But even United Nations-led international sanctions have had little impact on the North. In fact, North Korea became more brazenly provocative. They torpedoed a South Korean warship and shelled the frontline island of Yeonpyeong. Washington turned edgy and decided that more denuclearization talks were the only way forward. If the table at which those talks are held remained empty, North Korea would keep on producing more nuclear weaponry.

We’re now pushed onto the stage to face our co-star, hiding our grudge from the two attacks. On the sidelines of a regional security forum in Bali, Indonesia, South Korea’s foreign minister met with his North Korean counterpart in a veritable smile festival. Now that the two Koreas are on speaking terms again, the U.S. wants to speed up the process by directly meeting with North Korea. It’s full steam ahead to new six-party talks.

In fact, China holds the key to the North Korean nuclear conundrum. If China had the will, it could pressure the North to shut down its program for good. South Korea and China held a semiprivate and semipublic strategy debate on the issue last week. The South Korean side argued that the problem would be solved if China simply cut off fuel to North Korea for three months.

The Chinese retorted by saying North Korea developed nuclear weapons out of concern for its security. The U.S. is partly responsible, they said, insisting the six-party talks are the only way to resolve the matter.

China has turned distinctively assertive, as evidenced by the recent flare-ups over the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea. As the contest of power between Washington and Beijing intensifies, the latter is likely to use the North Korean nuclear issue as leverage against America. We can hardly expect progress in new six-party talks against such a backdrop.

Seoul and Washington have different aims in the nuclear talks. South Korea maintains that it cannot tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea, while the U.S. is willing to be satisfied with assurances that the North won’t make more atomic material. The stuff they’ve already made, they can keep. North Korea’s nuclear armaments, however, are a potentially fatal problem for us. So the charade goes on and the players circle the stage by hiding their real intentions behind the masks.

During the academic debate, the Chinese participants were of one voice in complaining about the Seoul-Washington alliance. When asked why Beijing kept silent on the North’s attacks on our warship and Yeonpyeong Island, they said that they only wished for peace on the Korean Peninsula. One day we may be threatened over holding military exercise in our own waters. The unification dream will further slip away. As long as the U.S. and China are engaged in a power game, Beijing will never give up on North Korea.

The kind of unification China would like to see on the Korean Peninsula has no place for a U.S. presence. But what would our destiny be without the U.S.? Our history tells us it would be a recipe for loss of sovereignty. The more Beijing howls about Korea-U.S. ties, the harder we must hold onto them. They are our biggest strength and that’s why it disturbs Beijing the most.

When we called for a bigger Chinese role during the nuclear debate, the Chinese snapped that they were being pulled into problems between the two Koreas. We retorted that China had a responsibility for peacekeeping as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a global power.

Nevertheless, we were ashamed that we may appear to be dependent in the eyes of another. A photo of bony North Korean children recently appeared in newspapers. How would the world regard us, proud of all our wealth, while children across the border starve to death?

We can lose ourselves if we are swept up in the current day-to-day arguments. If we demanded an apology for the two deadly attacks, we must get it. We should not fret over a dialogue with North Korea. If this government can’t do it, the next can. We must not forget our priorities. We need to help starving North Koreans. We must not halt construction of a naval base in Jeju Island because the Chinese protest. We can at least keep our honor if we stick to our guns.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAngIlbo.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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