Time for a different tack

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Time for a different tack

Last week, one of the worst cold fronts in 38 years hit the United States, and Washington, D.C., was no exception. The temperature fell to -4 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit), and it felt much colder because of the wind. The political scene in the U.S. capital was as chilly as the weather, with President Barack Obama pushing immigration reform despite opposition from Republicans.

Obama signed an executive order that would benefit about 5 million of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. In doing do, he bypassed Congress. It was an unexpectedly hard-line move because Democratic candidates were beaten soundly in the midterm elections, and the Republicans are in the majority in both houses. While he may be considered a lame duck, the president proclaimed his resolve to do what he can for the remainder of his term. Also, it means he is working on building his legacy, and immigration reform is likely to be written somewhere up high on the list of his accomplishments during his presidency.

Just as people make a “bucket list” of things to do before they die, presidents create a legacy list before stepping down. They would like to be able claim some distinguished accomplishments in certain areas after they leave office. Does Obama’s legacy list include resolution of North Korean nuclear tensions by the time he leaves the White House in January 2017? I asked a number of people in Washington that question, and they all had the same answer. They said North Korea is either not on the list or so near the bottom as to be practically nonexistent.

The lame-duck president has only limited political resources, and he should not waste them. He will have to select and concentrate resources on the most plausible and cost-effective issues. And most people in Washington generally think North Korea does not meet that criteria. It has low priority in America’s pending foreign policy issues, and the possibility of success is very slim considering the political risk. In other words, it is almost certain that the United States would not deviate from “strategic patience” unless North Korea shows its willingness for denuclearization with action, not words. In order to bring back two Americans held in North Korea, Obama sent James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, to deliver a letter to Kim Jong-un, but some say that it is wrong to interpret the move as a change of by the U.S. administration.

The realization that a negotiated resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue is an unattainable goal is spreading in Washington. Unless the distrust over Pyongyang is cleared up, the vicious cycle of doubt will only end in a catastrophe. So no one is willing to speak up to start negotiating. Moreover, inducing a regime change through consistent pressure is emerging as an alternative solution. “North Korea’s nuclear program will not be tolerated” is a mantra for American and Chinese leaders, but they have failed to propose any specific solutions. Why? Because there aren’t any.

Yet neglecting the nuclear issue would only make the situation worse. At this very moment, North Korea’s nuclear capability is progressing toward smaller, lighter and more varied weapons. The possibility of a fourth nuclear test is growing. At this juncture, we need to seek ways to freeze nuclear activities. So a change of direction is needed. When the entrance is blocked, enter through the exit. Negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington to establish diplomatic relations conditioned on an ultimately verifiable freezing of all nuclear activities in the North, including uranium enrichment, might be an option. The fundamental cause of nuclear tension is mutual distrust. So diplomatic ties could lead to an opening and bilateral exchanges, and the eventual goal of complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear program can be pursued over the long run based on a growth of trust.

It is not easy for the United States to come up with a plan to approach the North because of its alliance with the South. It seems the United States has no intention of initiating talks. That’s why Korea needs to be proactive when it comes to peacemaking. The Park administration must change its decision-making process related to North Korean policies. The current system of letting the president decide everything based on reports from the bottom can never bring a breakthrough.

On the crucial issue of nuclear tension, the Blue House National security adviser has never called a meeting of relevant ministers for brainstorming. A government that does not engage in proper discussions can never come up with bold and creative ideas. Still, it is not too late. Through discussion among the ministers, we need to draft a solution initiated by Korea. And President Park should bring the plan to President Obama and persuade him to make it the grand finale of his legacy list.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 25, Page 35

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok

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