[Viewpoint] Diplomacy in disarray

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[Viewpoint] Diplomacy in disarray

It was on Dec. 1, 2007, when a member of the North Korean delegation visiting Seoul contacted me for a meeting. We talked for nearly two hours, and he was curious about who was likely to become the next president and what his North Korean policy might be. I said Lee Myung-bak was the most promising candidate, and the former CEO would pursue pragmatic policies, but it all depended on how Pyongyang responded. I advised that Pyongyang should not be hostile toward the South but seek channels for talks during the interim period or the early days of the new administration.

But the Lee Myung-bak administration maintained inflexible positions and reckless and ungrounded anticipation for the collapse of the North Korean system. The inter-Korean relationship was worsening steadily. When I met the North Korean delegate again in August 2009, when he visited again for the funeral of former President Kim Dae-jung, he implied his disappointment. “I guess you were wrong, Professor Moon. Pragmatism is nowhere to be found in this administration,” he said. It was the first incident that my prediction was proven completely wrong.

In May 2008, President Lee visited Beijing and agreed on a “strategic cooperation partnership.” It was an amazing diplomatic accomplishment to enhance the level of the bilateral relations with China. So I made optimistic predictions on the future of the two countries, but it did not take very long for me to be proven wrong once again. While the Blue House claimed that the leaders of the two countries have gotten very close and discussed radical changes in the North, the reality unfolded in the opposite direction.

Beijing raised suspicions on the official statement of the Korean government on the sinking of the Cheonan and perceived the North’s arbitrary bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island as a skirmish. The economic sanctions against the North were not effective because China did not cooperate. In contrast, China-North relations became closer rapidly, and Li Changchun, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee in charge of foreign relations, said that the enhanced friendship with North Korea was a strategic choice. His remark was in response to the strengthened cooperation among Korea, Japan and the United States, and it was enough to override the “strategic cooperation partnership” between Seoul and Beijing.

It’s Japan’s turn now. Since the Lee Myung-bak administration was launched, the Korea-Japan relationship was elevated to “democratic alliance,” and preparation for the foundation of a trilateral military alliance among Korea, Japan and the United States was discussed. The Korea-Japan Information Protection Pact and the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement were postponed due to resistance of the public. But undoubtedly, the Lee administration’s Japan policy was centered on security cooperation with Japan and the mutual military assistance of the United States.

So all the latest events were quite unexpected. Who expected President Lee to make a visit to Dokdo or say “Japan’s international influence is not as strong as before” and “The Japanese emperor should make a sincere apology to the survivors of the independence movement activists if he wants to visit Korea?” The Korea-Japan relationship is at its most strained since the diplomatic ties were established in 1965. The diplomatic war has begun. Japan has said it will officially bring the Dokdo issue to the International Court of Justice and mentioned “retaliatory measures.” It is hard to predict the result at this point.

The alliance with the United States is the last remaining strong alliance. Until recently, the Lee Myung-bak administration was solid on prioritizing the Korea-U.S. alliance, but it is increasingly doubtful now. The Obama administration’s strategy to return to Asia requires military cooperation with Korea and Japan, but Washington’s East Asian policy may not progress as planned with the information cooperation pact between Korea and Japan postponed.

If the next-generation FX project or the Pyeongtaek base project stumbles, or the Blue House recklessly pushes for extension of the ballistic missile range or the revision of the nuclear power agreement, Washington’s disappointment may eventually lead to weakening of the alliance.

If the unpredictable and ever-changing foreign policy was a clever move based on thorough strategy and calculation, I would have been sincerely happy to be proven wrong. It’s fine to make an incorrect prediction. In diplomacy, sometimes you need to be firm and quick to pursue national interests.

However, the series of events and progress was not a result of a well-designed road map. It seems that the administration was just reckless and messed up the whole thing. Creating tension with all of our neighbors is not desirable.

The presidential election is less than four months away, and no matter who wins, the next president has to learn a lesson for sure. The succeeding president must understand the importance of diplomacy that does not surprise our partners. Clear planning and analysis for the future is necessary. Only then can the president assure citizens and make long-term plans for the nation.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

* The author is a political science professor at Yonsei University.

by Moon Chung-in
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