[Viewpoint] It’s a pragmatist’s turnAs the presidential election approaches, the debate over North Korea policy is about to heat up. It seems that both the “sunshine policy” and the hard-line policy have expired. The Sunshine Policy is criticized for being too dovish, while the Lee Myung-bak administration is condemned for creating an unnecessary crisis. Diplomacy and dialogue have disappeared. In retrospect, citizens consider both the policy of waiting for North Korea to change and the policy of waiting for North Korea to surrender neither realistic nor pragmatic.
However, failures were expected from the beginning. Experts commonly point out that the foreign and security policy is monopolized by a certain group. The “sunshine policy” was a stage for the idealists, while the hard-line policy was dominated by the Korean version of neoconservatives. They were confined in their own ideological leagues, and coexistence or compromise could not be expected from them.
In the eyes of the ideological leagues, compromising their interests may be seen as collusion. However, the interest-driven league is far more effective in preventing confrontation or discord as it recognizes the existence of the other side.
Therefore, no matter which faction takes power, pragmatic realists should be included in their foreign policy and national security team. We need to create an environment for compromise and confrontation of interests by transcending the confrontation of ideologies.
The foreign policies that shifted the focus of history from confrontation to coexistence were mostly the products of pragmatic realists. The Truman-Acheson-Marshall policy brought stability and prosperity to the Western world after World War II, and Nixon-Kissinger’s normalization of relations between the United States and China brought detente to the cold war confrontation. The Bush-Baker-Scowcroft policy brought an end to the cold war without a single gunshot.
Since the Kim Jong-un system has been established in the North and tension is elevating on the Korean Peninsula, we desperately need a pragmatic policy more than ever. Of course, the crisis of inter-Korean relations did not begin with the emergence of Kim Jong-un.
However, the level of provocation is different now that nuclear possession has been stipulated in the Constitution. A promising presidential candidate was concerned that nuclear North Korea may do something to the South, and it is not a completely groundless worry.
The Samsung Economic Research Institute surveyed Korean and international experts on the security index of the Korean Peninsula, and the study illustrates the elevated crisis. The inter-Korean relationship is at its worst ever since the security index was surveyed for the first time in 2007. The military tension index is similar to the survey conducted after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and the inter-Korean government relations index is actually worse now.
In order to respond to the crisis, the foreign and defense ministers of Korea and the United States met and agreed to establish a comprehensive joint defense stance as well as cybersecurity cooperation. It was an inevitable choice for the survival of the Republic of Korea amid a vulnerable security environment in the run-up to the presidential election.
However, concerns still remain. When the survival issue, rather than peace on the peninsula, emerges as the focus of the North Korean policy, the conclusion is only clear: control of North Korea by overwhelming military strength.
Of course, living alongside North Korea means constant military tension. However, we have made the difficult policy choice of deterring North Korean provocation without resorting to war. It has been a calculated venture to defend peace. We have been working not to prepare for a war but to avoid one.
Of course, power and peace go together in international politics. However, even the most formidable military is useless without proper diplomatic support. Napoleon was crushed by the European coalition despite its overwhelming military strength. In contrast, Bismarck successfully dissolved a potential alliance of enemies with cleaver diplomatic tactics.
The same goes for the North Korean policy. The success and failure of the policy depends on how Korea maintains peace with China, an ally of North Korea. Unfortunately, this perspective was nowhere to be found at the meeting of Korean and American foreign and defense ministers.
The aggravation of the neo-cold war structure is an ironic fortune for North Korea. No matter what kind of provocation Pyongyang makes, China has no choice but to defend it structurally. The Kim Jong-un regime may try to exploit this ironic fortune as much as possible, and we must hold him back. That’s why we desperately need the wisdom and effort of a pragmatic and realistic policy.
* Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
* The author is a political science professor at Seoul National University.
by Chang Dal-joong