Consistency is the keyWhen I was a junior reporter on the police beat in the early 1980s, I heard an anecdote from my senior. “During a flood, a body floated down and reached a certain police jurisdiction along the Han River,” he said. “But the next day, the body had moved to the neighboring jurisdiction. Because it was not a high-profile case, there was sort of a Ping-Pong game between the two precincts.”
Such an episode wouldn’t happen today, but they did in the past. I once reported on such a Ping-Pong match between the two precincts over a body that was found in a car accident.
The North Korean nuclear crisis, which has been with us for more than two decades, reminds me of such Ping-Pong matches. Maybe the North Korean nuclear program is an unwanted corpse and the United States and China are having a Ping-Pong game over who can deal with it. South Korea is the local resident exposed to the risk of contagion from the body on the street.
The United States and China have put some efforts into resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. The 1994 Geneva agreement between Washington, Pyongyang and Beijing increased political and economic pressures on the North.
But over the long stretch of 20 years, delicate “national interests” in international politics are being applied to the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The core issue is whether ending the North’s nuclear program is truly a national interest matter to the United States and China - or just talk?
In the past, the two countries used their armed forces over matters they could not resolve. When a newly unified Vietnam supported the Soviet Union in the China-Soviet border conflict and oppressed Chinese residents in Vietnam, China used its armed forces against Vietnam in February 1979. America used its military power to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 and then to invade Iraq in 2003.
If the United States and China had really put together their power over the past 20 years, would we still have a North Korean nuclear crisis? Even without using armed forces, they could have found a general resolution. That has not been the case. So we have to wonder if Washington and Beijing are treating the nuclear crisis as an excuse to seize hegemony in Northeast Asia and control of the two Koreas.
Speculation was high that the United States and China would step up their efforts to resolve the nuclear crisis after their summit in early June. But the latest developments showed that analysis to be premature. China is persuading the United States and North Korea to resume six-party talks by asking Washington to ease its preconditions for the talks. The United States has been demanding the North respect the 2012 agreement, in which it promised to stop nuclear and missile tests, end its uranium enrichment program and allow inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Although China was adding economic pressure on Pyongyang, North Korea-China trade has increased. The United States has refused to accept China’s request for concessions by insisting that Pyongyang’s commitment is a precondition, but, in fact, it does not have room to handle the thorny issue.
“Among the top U.S. officials higher than the secretary level, no one takes the North Korea issue seriously,” said a former senior official who’s well informed about U.S.-South Korea relations.
South Korea, therefore, has to step up its efforts to resolve the crisis. While reinforcing its military readiness against the North’s threats, it must create a creative road map to win the agreement of America, China and the North. Although opinions are split in the South on how to resolve the nuclear crisis, the public agrees that a war cannot be tolerated and that the South cannot indefinitely pay the expense of ending the nuclear program.
We need to approach the issue not as a surgery but a remedy from oriental medicine. We must persuade the United States to make it clear to the North that it cannot directly deal with Washington without going through Seoul. We must also improve the inter-Korean relations by assisting the North in a way that doesn’t hurt the South’s pride.
Most of all, the strategy must be consistently implemented whether a conservative or a liberal administration wins power in the South, just like West Germany pushed forward hard-line policies and engagement policies toward East Germany for two decades.
*The author is a senior fellow of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute.
by Ahn Hee-chang