Preventive diplomacy is key“Spring has come,” the poem says, “but it is not quite spring yet.” The challenges and crises we face are as severe as winter’s cold. Aside from our tangled domestic situation, war clouds produced by North Korea’s nuclear program continue to threaten peace in Northeast Asia. The Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation recently published a report entitled “Japan’s Worst Case Scenarios,” which dramatically highlights the risk of a nuclear arms race in East Asia triggered by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The international community is paying keen attention as it poses a possibility of a worst case scenario not only to Japan but to all of East Asia, including Korea and China, and even to the United States.
The limits and failures of foreign policies of powerful nations, including the U.S., and the confrontation between South and North Korea are responsible for the current situation. Especially America, the main superpower, has been setting its foreign policy priorities almost automatically based on the tradition of prioritizing Europe and the Middle East, including the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a result, the Korean Peninsula issue has not been the focus of its foreign policy agenda. In the end, a critical lack of understanding of the essence of the issues and the seriousness of the North Korean crisis, and a consequent careless response on the part of the U.S., have fanned today’s crisis.
It is an irony of history that America’s relative indifference to the Korean Peninsula issue began to change after North Korea conducted its third nuclear test and made threats to attack Washington, DC. A decade ago - before North Korea’s first nuclear test - Harvard University professor Graham Allison presciently warned in his book, “Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe,” that, “On the current course, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and a nuclear weapons production line promises to become the greatest failure in the nearly 230-year history of American foreign policy.” If Washington actively embraced his advice, we may have been able to avoid today’s crisis.
The ambiguity of China’s policy contributed to the failure of international efforts to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions as much as America’s negligence. China has become a superpower, but it is anachronistic - and lackadaisical - to maintain the cold war policy of keeping North Korea as a buffer to counter the South Korea-U.S. alliance even when Seoul-Beijing relations have progressed into a strategic partnership. In addition, its choice to keep open the possibility of nuclear proliferation by not actively discouraging North Korea’s nuclear program is wrong, especially when all countries in East Asia recognize China as the only nuclear power in the region. Just as professor Zheng Wang pointed out, China may have become overly comfortable with tradition and convention and has been engaging in North Korean relations - especially the North Korea’s nuclear issue - without establishing a clear foreign policy goal that corresponds to the times.
It is fortunate that the United States and China are seeking a new breakthrough after acknowledging the limits and failures of their policies on North Korea’s nuclear threat. Since no one wants a war on the Korean Peninsula, that ultimately means pursuing a revival of diplomacy with effective persuasion, pressure and compromise. It’s about time that Washington and Beijing recognize a lack of notable diplomatic efforts since the secret negotiation between Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai changed the cold war structure 40 years ago. Just as the resolution of the German problem brought peace to Europe, we need to establish mutual awareness that we need a resolution of the Korean Peninsula issues - including North Korea’s nuclear threat, in particular - for the peaceful development of Asia.
For such a diplomatic breakthrough, interested nations - especially America and China - need to modify their understandings of the nature of North Korea’s regime. North Korea is an extraordinary country, not a typical totalitarian or communist state. Therefore, the radical and unusual behavior of the recalcitrant country, which is far from international standards, is often considered a catastrophic pathological phenomenon. As a result, the international community believes that Pyongyang cannot be a partner in normal negotiations or compromise.
Therefore, some assume that denuclearization is impossible in any case. However, the course of North Korea’s survival over six decades illustrate that Pyongyang has been logically pursuing the interest of its own survival. North Korea is not a suicidal system that shuts the door to negotiations needed for its survival. So we can reach a conclusion that the critical point, which is now, is the time for Washington and Beijing to come up with a diplomatic solution and push for it firmly.
Just in time, a new leadership has been established in all six countries surrounding the Korean Peninsula - with the leaders either newly elected or successfully reelected. The idea that summit diplomacy is the best shortcut to guaranteeing denuclearization of the North and peace in the peninsula is becoming increasingly persuasive. We hope that President Park Geun-hye’s visit to Washington in May serves as the beginning of “preventative diplomacy.”
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hong-koo