In praise of ritualsWith the nation still in mourning over the Sewol ferry tragedy, inter-Korean ties are aggravated. Official contact has long been suspended and military tension is increasingly elevating. In addition to a series of missile test launches, military drills in the West Sea and unmanned aerial vehicle infiltration, Pyongyang has forewarned of a forth nuclear experiment and long-range missile tests. Ministry of Defense spokesman Kim Min-seok publicly said that North Korea is “a country that must disappear soon.” Pyongyang responded with threats of a “war of retaliation” and “an order to strike Seoul.”
North Korea’s verbal attacks aren’t necessarily news, but it is hard to ignore the anxiety a possible clash would bring. We need to pay attention to the fact that even the strongest military deterrence is meaningless once the line has been crossed. Regardless of which side wins, it is obvious that both would suffer tremendous casualties and damage. That’s why prevention is far more crucial than deterrence or victory.
Until now, one axis of the security policy of the Park Geun-hye administration was preventative diplomacy. It led to some of the most popular measures such as the Korean Peninsula trust process, the Northeast Asian peace cooperation plan, balanced diplomacy and a unification jackpot. However, the mood has changed drastically. Preventative diplomacy cannot be found even in mere talks, and rhetoric of deterrence and punishment prevails.
The changes were evident in a recent overseas trip by Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se as well as by the Korea-U.S. summit meeting last month. When Yun met with Catherine Ashton, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, on May 8 in New York, he said, “If North Korea carries out another nuclear test or fires mid-range missiles, the international community will slap strong sanctions on Pyongyang.” At the news conference with Korean reporters, he said, “We know the most vulnerable parts of North Korea, so it must give up nuclear experiments before we target where it hurts the most.”
The most awkward thing is that the messages to North Korea are conveyed indirectly. On April 23, President Park, through Chinese President Xi Jinping, requested that Pyongyang refrain from additional nuclear tests. Minister Yun said, “A fourth nuclear experiment is a direct confrontation against China,” and argued that Korea would pursue international cooperation for strong sanctions in case of a provocation by the North. The plan is to build international solidarity, which includes China, to isolate and blockade the North. However, the message was delivered in a roundabout way to North Korea at the United Nations in New York.
Bad actions should be accompanied by sanctions. It is a natural diplomatic step to talk in order to prevent provocation. But how effective can this “loudspeaker diplomacy” be? Throughout the five years of the Lee Myung-bak administration, Korea made countless threats about retaliation and punishment, but they failed to prevent any provocations, nuclear experiments, or missile tests. When the inter-Korean relationship turns into an emotional fight of punishment and repulsion, we are only left with the worst sorts of outcomes.
It would be uncomfortable to sit on the other side of the table from North Korea, which continues to make ethically unacceptable remarks. But a high-level dialogue channel already exists. If an official and public meeting is not a possibility, officials need to make unofficial, behind-the-curtain contact to break the deadlock. While the Park administration has been restricting most civilian contacts, it may be appropriate to start with civilian exchanges followed by government contacts when approaching a closed society like North Korea. When civilian organizations pave the way, the government will be able to utilize it. There is no need to adhere to official meetings alone. The past year and a half of our government-led inter-Korean relationship has resulted in little. While we shake hands, one hand remains tied.
But Pyongyang’s situation is not easy either. While we may not acknowledge it, we already have many cards to play. There are many ways to encourage Pyongyang to change: a resumption of tourism on Mount Kumgang, a lifting of the May 24 sanctions, economic appeasement and influence through the United States and China. Making threats without playing any of the cards is no way for a master to play the game.
The situation is stern now. The reflective diplomacy of punishing bad actions is not very wise. It is Korea, not China or the United States, that needs to manage the disaster. We need to consider a straightforward move instead of looking for the detours that may not work. By using all measures imaginable, including those behind-the-scenes, official and under-the-table contacts, we need to shift to ward a creative and proactive diplomacy of prevention. Right before a disaster is the best time to display our caliber.