[Viewpoint] Prerequisites for leadership material

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[Viewpoint] Prerequisites for leadership material

We begin the new year more with a heavy heart than hope and expectation due to the cloud of uncertainty hanging over our heads. In 2012, South Korea, as well as its key foes and allies, brace for a change in state leadership. The foreign front could change according to a new leader and so could the geopolitical landscape of East Asia and the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea is already undergoing a transformation due to the sudden death of long-time strongman Kim Jong-il. The path his not-yet-30 son Kim Jong-un takes - whether it is the continuance of “military first” belligerency backed by nuclear weaponry or reform to restore the ravaged isolated economy - could be the key variable on the regional geopolitical horizon.

The White House policy on Korean affairs would be in line with expectations if President Barack Obama is re-elected in November. But its stance on North Korea could shift in a new direction if hawkish conservative Republican candidates like Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney win the presidential election. Tension could escalate in the region depending on the new American leader.

Vice President Xi Jinping is anticipated to succeed Chinese President Hu Jintao. It remains unclear if he will focus on cementing China’s status as an economic powerhouse or enhancing military might.

When facing volatile and unpredictable weather, one needs to be shrewd and flexible. There is not much room for maneuvering by incumbent President Lee Myung-bak’s government during its final year. It is too risky to make a major move. Instead, it is best to try to maintain the status quo and lessen the burden on the next administration. The candidates running in the December presidential election should, in fact, be prepared to take up the challenge. They must thoughtfully study and concoct a long-term security blueprint for the country.

First of all, we need a new mindset and framework on inter-Korean relations to incorporate and respond to the rapidly changing security environment. Changes in North Korea are no longer a hypothesis, but a reality. We must seize the moment to start anew. Looking back on our historical trajectory, we were able to exercise leadership on the foreign front upon better relations with North Korea. We must not forget North Korea’s attacks against our warship and inhabited Yeonpyeong Island, but at the same time, we must prevent the incidents from hindering steps toward the future.

Responsive action and retaliation cannot open the path to peace. We must resolve the impasse with the Mount Kumgang tourism project, resume humanitarian and food aid, and revitalize inter-Korean exchange and cooperation. We can untangle the pending denuclearization and military issues after passing the bottlenecks. If we offer reconciliatory and cooperative gestures in place of suspicion and hostility, we could build trust and peace in our region.

Better relations with North Korea could give us leverage in pursuit of balanced diplomacy. If we remain at odds with North Korea, we inevitably need to rely on our strong alliance with the United States. But upon improved inter-Korean relations, we need not make difficult choices between the U.S. and China. We could maintain our traditional alliance with the U.S., and at the same time, strengthen our strategic partnership with China. In the long run, South Korea could help to balance out the regional security framework.

We must also enhance the global status of our nation. South Korea’s brand and status does not suddenly rise because it hosts various international forums and meetings. We cannot expect respect from the international community by exporting nuclear reactors and defense material. We will be regarded as no more than Washington’s cheerleader if we demonstrate synchronized defense actions by joining U.S.-Australia military drills, seeking a strategic alliance with Israel and abstaining from a vote to allow Palestine full membership in Unesco.

To gain recognition from the international community, we must be innovative in presenting directions and solutions on foreign affairs. We need to change our mindset first if we do not want to be content with a peripheral status that follows the footsteps of major powers for immediate gains. If we want a bigger role, we must demonstrate dignity, humility and discretion.

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

By Moon Chung-in
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