Foreign policy matters, too

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Foreign policy matters, too

In the current presidential election, foreign policy and national security have been pushed into the wings. It’s a 180-degree turn from the last presidential race, in which candidates argued seriously over whether to put our foreign policy focus on our alliance with the U.S. or to strive for more balance with North Korea. Foreign policy and security issues are not highlighted because economic and welfare issues are being taken so seriously.

Of course, this trend is not limited to Korea. In the U.S. presidential election, foreign affairs and security issues took up about 2 percent of the campaign. That election too was a battle over economic policies. After his re-election victory, President Obama said, “It’s time to build a nation that lives up to the ideals that so many Americans have fought for.” The ideals he was referencing were related to domestic affairs, not foreign policy.

But Korea is in a different situation, needless to say, from that superpower. We live every day with the kind of unstable diplomatic and security tensions that could change the fate of our nation. This circumstance can’t be avoided, and we are often required to make black and white choices. The United States can survive in many gray zones, but Korea has to make resolute choices in order not to become an international outcast. How can we survive such an existence?

I was surprised to stumble upon an unexpected solution when a former economic official spoke at a publishing party. He said, “The vitality of the next administration depends on how it forms its foreign policy and security team.” Interestingly, I hear this often from economic specialists. The latest trend is to find a new engine for economic growth - from foreign policy and security.

These days, the Northeast Asian region is getting unprecedented international attention. It’s not merely because the region is emerging as the center of global economic growth. The international community hopes that the increasing mutual economic dependence can prevent cold war-style conflicts.

However, the reality is not so rosy. The kindling alight with America’s return to Asia, the rise of China, discord between Korea and Japan and China and Japan over territories, and the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles. The challenge at the center of Korea’s security situation is to use the breakwater of mutual economic dependency to prevent the fire from spreading from the kindling to the tinderbox.

Unfortunately, we haven’t heard any discussion of this situation in the campaign. I asked a foreign policy whiz from one of the election campaigns. He said no matter who comes into power, he or she will respond to those issues with “on-the-job training.” In other words: We’ll jump off that bridge when we get to it.

Foreign affairs and security policies are like complicated equations. On-the-job training isn’t enough.

In the bipolar structure of the cold war era, the Korea-U.S. alliance was the key to all our problems. However, the age when that alliance solved all problems is over. Instead, in a world of so-called multipartners, it is important to create flexible partnerships with different countries that stand for different things. It is not an easy job for Korea, whose diplomacy and security policies were based on its alliance with the United States. We may need to cooperate with countries with different values to maximize our national interests.

The most serious foreign policy and security challenge is the North Korean nuclear issue. Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama sent a signal for talks to the North Korean leadership at the University of Yangon in Myanmar. “To the leadership of North Korea, I have offered a choice: Let go of your nuclear weapons and choose the path of peace and progress. If you do, you will find an extended hand from the United States of America.”

At the very least, Washington seems to have changed its position from one of not talking until Pyongyang shows a sincere will for denuclearization. It’s similar to the Clinton and Bush administrations’ policy of putting pressure on the North during their first terms and pursuing some agreements in the second. It seems to be a signal that North Korea will not be pushed into a corner. Washington is returning to a realist policy.

Tension continues on the Korean Peninsula due to North Korea’s provocation. How can we defend our national security? It is the foremost duty of politics. On-the-job training isn’t sufficient to carry out such a solemn duty. We need a third strategy for the multipartner era. The Korea-U.S. alliance remains a mainstay, but we need a multipartnership strategy beyond it. The presidential election should create a mutual understanding between the ruling and opposition parties for this strategic need.

If foreign and security policy continue to be pushed into the wings, we may elect a government without any ideas of what to do at all.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

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

by Chang Dal-joong
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