Foreign policy mired in morality

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Foreign policy mired in morality

At a recent debate session, a former ambassador who served in the government, academia and political arena commented that Korea’s foreign affairs and security policy was too hung up on moral principles. While realistic responses are needed to the rapid changes in Northeast Asia, Korean officials don’t seem to have the understanding, he said.

“We need a realistic strategy like that of Dr. Henry Kissinger, but we are obsessed with the moral issues like North Korea’s sincerity and Japan’s perception of history,” he said.

An argument frequently heard at various meetings these days is that Korea needs a diplomatic breakthrough by a strategist like Kissinger. Reiteration of such assertions seems to originate from the fact that we don’t easily see an end to the confrontation between the two Koreas and the conflict with Japan.

In international relations, Kissinger was a theorist and executor who valued realistic improvements of relations rather than moral principle. So he always valued the balance of powers. As he proposed, Northeast Asia has kept a kind of power balance since the historic reconciliation of the United States and China in 1972.

But the balance is at risk. North Korea’s nuclear development, the military buildups of China and Japan, territorial disputes and the rise of nationalism are driving regional affairs into danger. Kevin Rudd, who served as the Australian prime minister, even said that we are facing an “existential threat.” Unfortunately, however, no diplomatic culture and realistic efforts were seen to stabilize Northeast Asia because political and moral causes invariably overwhelm diplomacy.

Foreign and security policies always come with tensions between moral principle and pragmatism. Kissinger recalled that the biggest concern he had after joining the White House was when the president said there were no options other than nuclear weapons. The dilemma was: If you treat the Soviet Union as an immoral state, the risk of a nuclear war will grow, but an approach of compromise would have allowed Soviet supremacy in the nuclear race - according to Kissinger’s account in a book written by Mary Ann Glendon, professor of law at Harvard University.

Korean foreign affairs and security officials probably have similar concerns because President Park Geun-hye has been saying there is no way out from the current situation except for through the “sincerity” of North Korea and Japan. But it seems that they don’t express concerns like Kissinger’s. They all appeared to be busy repeating what Park said. That is why experts are raising their voices to say the administration must find a realistic way to improve relationships while continuing to insist on moral principle.

U.S. President Richard Nixon was a hard-liner, conservative and anti-Communist, but he opened monumental U.S.-China detente based on Kissinger’s strategy, and experts say Korea needs a similar move. The reason is obvious: Park’s signature visions of the Korean Peninsula Trust Process and Northeast Asia Peace Initiative have failed to make any progress because they were confined within the framework of moral principle.

Kissinger recalled that the most necessary task in foreign policy is making a distinction between an important mission and an urgent mission. Policy makers must put priority on an urgent mission over an important one, as they always have, to prepare for the worst possible situation.

Kissinger’s message is clear. Instead of insisting on the sincerity of North Korea and Japan - which we cannot confirm and may never get - Korea should make attempts to have realistic diplomatic overtures. It is the destiny of a politician to cross the Rubicon without knowing what’s on the other side.

Park has said she will not cross the river until she can confirm what is on the other side. In her interview with a French newspaper on Nov. 3, however, she mentioned the possibility of having an inter-Korean summit on the condition of Pyongyang’s sincerity. Reports also were made that the Unification Ministry is considering lifting the May 24 measures - a series of sanctions against North Korea in effect since the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks in 2010.

That is a positive development. Although the North’s sincerity and Japan’s perception of history are sensitive and important matters, having a more realistic approach to resolve an urgent situation such as the North’s nuclear program is more imperative.

Kissinger has underscored that diplomacy is about eliciting a realistic compromise from limited possibilities. Vetting everything on an ultimate goal based on moral principle is quite dangerous because it can bring about an enormous disaster such as war.

We must find a way to reach the ultimate goal through partial but realistic resolutions.

The existential threat we are facing today and the limited presidential term of five years desperately demand a realistic foreign affairs and security initiative by President Park.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

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

by Chang Dal-joong
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