Park should learn from Nixon
Feb. 25, when President Park Geun-hye is set to be sworn in, marks the 41st anniversary of a landmark agreement between two cold war adversaries - the United States and China - following a historic visit to Beijing by President Richard Nixon. Although the two countries were poles apart on the ideological axis since the establishment of the communist People’s Republic of China, Nixon shocked the world with his trip to mainland China for the first time as a U.S. president, paving the way for a political detente across the severely bisected world at the time.
His visit to China was far from a whimsical political stunt. Its repercussions on world history were even more stunning. Having gained the endorsement of peace from the U.S., China was able to aggressively pursue opening and reforms. The Soviet Union - pressured by the rise of a new rival across the border - slowly disintegrated and completely collapsed two decades later.
Sino-U.S. normalization of ties was a pivotal international and political event that succeeded because of ripe objective and subjective conditions. Externally, the border clashes amid the height of the Sino-Soviet conflict induced Beijing to look toward Washington to improve ties and leverage. Subjectively, leaders in both Washington and Beijing were willing to place national interests ahead of ideology.
Nixon’s reputation of being tough against communism also made the visit permissible without questions about ulterior motives. His sterling anti-communist credentials granted him immunity from ideology-related criticism and resistance. Few believed Nixon would compromise with communists. He was, therefore, free to talk with Chinese communist leaders and open the path to cooperation.
The Park Geun-hye administration is poised to start its first year in office amid tumultuous geopolitical conditions. North Korea has conducted nuclear tests twice and also recently succeeded in blasting off a rocket and sending a satellite into orbit - technology that could send missiles carrying nuclear warheads across the continent. The tense rivalry between China and Japan over the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, suggests Beijing is intent on mounting a hegemonic claim to the region. The escalating regional tensions could have a severe impact on us as they can aggravate internal conflict because of our geopolitical risk of being in a de facto state of war with North Korea. The incoming government inevitably would have to work more strenuously to improve ties with North Korea.
A new set of perspectives can sometimes change the course of history. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program may be a desperate response to the hostile policies of South Korea and the United States as Pyongyang can hardly dream of matching the two countries in military, political and economic matters. Having lost its past nuclear patron and lagging far behind in traditional military power, North Korea appears to be clinging to nuclear arms to overcome its security inferiority. More importantly, it may be feeling existentially insecure because it failed to be recognized by the U.S. and South Korea as a sovereign state.
The problems are clear, but the solution not so. The international community cannot resolve the North Korean nuclear problem through military means. Unless we can irrevocably destroy North Korea’s nuclear arms, facilities and military capacity that can strike the Southern capital, any military resolve could exact astronomical damage. Therefore, we must cross out the military choice as a solution to the North Korean problem. As long as North Korea can reach out to China, economic and political sanctions cannot entirely corner the country. International sanctions so far have been ineffective because Pyongyang has a wealthy powerhouse as its patron that kept to its side despite its deadly provocations last year.
The international forum on the Korean Peninsula in July proposed that South Korea recognize the sovereign character of North Korea and at the same time seek denuclearization, peace and cooperation for a resolution.
As long as North Korea is referred to as a enemy, invader and anti-state entity, the country will remain protective of its security. Foreign scholars pointed out that South Korea needs to realize that North Korea has been recognized formerly by the United Nations and many other European countries. Once North Korea is recognized as an independent state, then it can be more open to peace and cooperation.
Of course, there is no guarantee that this solution will work. But if diplomatic and security authorities exercise a plan based on discretion, we may be able to accomplish what we have sought out. The past governments have been too trapped in the ideological spectrum to discern and seize small opportunities.
As the Nixon administration was with China, the conservative and centrist Park government is most qualified to work aggressively with North Korea for future interests.
We hope the new government will be able to capitalize on the challenges and opportunities and pave the way for a dramatic turning point in inter-Korean relations.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of international relations at Kyung Hee University.
By Kwon Man-hak