[Viewpoint] From waiting to tactical management

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[Viewpoint] From waiting to tactical management

The bashing of the United States is getting harsher and harsher over the ratification of the free trade agreement between Korea and the United States. Last week, an American friend who was visiting Seoul made a sarcastic comment, saying, “I thought the United States had disappeared, but maybe it’s not gone quite yet.”

At first, I did not get his joke. But after having observed the U.S.-North relationship, he had a point. He thought that Washington’s North Korean policy was hijacked by Seoul, and the North Korean policy was nonexistent or missing.

But he claimed that the time for change has come for North Korean policy. Washington can no longer neglect the Korean Peninsula. In fact, the South and the North have been caught in the vicious cycle of provocation and retaliation.

There has not been a chance to understand the motive or intention of each other. Therefore, it is not easy to find a mutual language to seek resolution through negotiation. It is a repetition of the inter-Korean relationship from the cold war era.

However, we are facing a threat that is far more frightening than any menace in the cold war period. It is the complete destruction by nuclear attack. Amid the nuclear scare, neither Pyongyang nor Seoul come out winners. Both sides are scared and shivering out of panic. However, we are unable to escape the swamp of horror.

Is there a solution? A question is arising after the second North-U.S. talk in Geneva. Washington feels that a talk is desperately needed in order to prevent an unexpected crisis. Also, dialogue would be a possibility as Pyongyang has become more flexible. So Washington has reshuffled the North Korean team with officials who are good negotiators.

Last week, Foreign Policy magazine featured an interesting aspect of the North Korean team. The article about Glyn Davies, the new North Korean envoy, is noteworthy. When he was the deputy secretary of state in the bureau of East Asian and Pacific affairs, he proposed in an internal e-mail to refrain from using the expression “oppressive North Korean regime.” He suggested not using the word “oppressive” and calling Pyongyang a government rather than a regime.

Clifford Hart, the special envoy for the six-party talks, and Sidney Seiler, the chief of Korean Peninsula policy in the National Security Council, also advocated pursuing resolution through dialogue.

Wendy Sherman, the under secretary for political affairs, oversees general North Korean policy and is also a negotiator. As a North Korean policy coordinator in 1998, she commanded the policy coordination between government agencies for the Perry Process. Also, she arranged Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit to North Korea in 2000.

So why did Washington establish a new system under Davis? Professor Joel Wit of Johns Hopkins University considers it a move of “tactical management” to respond to unexpected situations. At this rate, there is a risk that North Korea could become a second Pakistan in five years. As the “door to become the strong and prosperous country” will open next year, the possibility of another nuclear or missile test cannot be ruled out. Then, Obama’s reelection campaign may be affected. In order to prevent any crisis or incident, Washington felt a strong need for talks.

Just in time, the Korean government is shifting its direction to become more flexible. The softening has been expected since Yu Woo-ik was named the minister of unification.

During a visit to the United States last week, Yu made comments that suggest a more specific change in policy direction. He said that the government was seeking to find a channel for stable talks with North Korea to alleviate the inter-Korean tension.

Also, he expressed an intention to positively consider government-level humanitarian aid through the United Nations. It seems that he suggested the need and possibility for inter-Korean contact, which has been severed since May 24 of last year.

We cannot deny that Seoul’s tactic to “wait” has certainly taught a lesson to North Korea. However, it has not forced Pyongyang to change. It unnecessarily undermined the strategic relationship with China and brought dark clouds of a new cold war over the Korean Peninsula.

Now, the problems surrounding North Korea can only be resolved through contacts and talks. We need comprehensive diplomacy through pressure and persuasion to make North Korea change its attitude. Maybe Korea’s waiting strategy needs to be hijacked by Washington’s strategic management.

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

By Chang Dal-joong
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