Turning crisis into opportunity
The cyber war between the United States and North Korea, prompted by a Hollywood comedy, threw a wet blanked on some rare winds of engagement toward Pyongyang blowing simultaneously from Seoul, Washington, Tokyo and Moscow. It appears that the situation will continue for a while.
The Barack Obama administration declared its intention to restore ties with Cuba as part of its series of efforts to normalize relations with old foes of the United States. In 2012, President Obama visited Myanmar, the strategic link that connects China, Southeast Asia and Southwest Asia and achieved a significant diplomatic accomplishment of partly shielding this country, which was known as the front yard of China, from Beijing’s overwhelming influence. Although Congress still has to lift economic sanctions on Myanmar, the country has already leaned toward the United States.
In September 2013, Obama had a telephone summit with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. It was the first conversation between the leaders of the United States and Iran since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Although there is a long way to go toward normalization of relations, it seemed like a changed world from U.S.-Iran relations from 1979 till 2012.
U.S. relations with Vietnam, from which the United States had suffered a crushing defeat in war, have almost been restored to the level of security cooperation amidst the competition for influence between the United States and China. Since Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Hanoi in 2013, the U.S. government has lifted its arms embargo on Vietnam.
Despite the diplomatic accomplishments, Obama’s leadership on the world stage was damaged in substantial ways last year due to his lukewarm attitude toward the Syrian crisis. During the Ukraine crisis, Washington made no critical mistake, but U.S. incompetence was still exposed. That is why Obama became hungry for a greater diplomatic achievement.
The Republican Party is now controlling Congress, and Obama cannot hope for legislation that can become any kind of presidential accomplishment in domestic politics. Obama, then, focused on Cuba, a diplomatic quagmire his predecessors did not dare to touch.
Secret talks began between the two countries starting with contact in Canada in June 2013. The efforts produced a historic declaration of normalization of diplomatic relations on Dec. 17 after 53 years as enemies. The normalization of ties between the United States and Cuba is a milestone that is comparable to President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.
Following Obama’s astonishing approach to Cuba, the question naturally whether North Korea will be next. In this series of normalization of relations with old foes, the Obama administration’s diplomacy will be completed when a clue is discovered to resolving the Korean Peninsula issue by improving North Korea-U.S. relations. It is certain that Obama has an ambition to complete this picture. In 2009, he received the Nobel Peace Prize without having had the opportunity to make much of a contribution to world peace. He had just been elected president of the U.S. He must earn that prize eventually.
And yet, the cyberattack on Sony Pictures only reconfirmed to the Americans that North Korea is a rogue stage. While Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs were nothing but an abstract threat from a country that is so far away, Americans were reminded that the North is a clear and present danger when they saw a major movie company became powerless under the onslaught of a cyberattack, which the U.S. government’s Federal Bureau of Investigation blamed on the North.
Sony is the creator of the entire situation. It made a movie based on a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un under the justification of satire. It could of used a fictional character but chose not to. For North Koreans, it is the worst insult imaginable to their supreme leader. The freedom of expression that Obama talked about does not exist in North Korea. Americans, however, cannot understand the North’s physical responses. This is a clash of cultures.
The milk is already spilled. No one can dare to say that North-U.S. bilateral talks should be resumed. North Korea is now cornered. With its icy relations with China, the North can only rely on Russia, but Russia is suffering a crisis due to the plummeting price of oil and its devaluing currency, as well as the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union following its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
But everything is subject to change. Washington once said it will put the North back on the list of state sponsors of terror, but it is now taking a step back, perhaps because it didn’t want to completely put out the ember of improving North Korea-U.S. relations.
Obama’s diplomacy that started in the Caribbean Sea can continue onto Pyongyang. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, with a victory in the legislative elections under his belt, will head to Pyongyang. Russian President Vladimir Putin also invited the leaders of the two Koreas to visit Russia. Although the mood is hostile due to the cyber war, the warmer winds of spring around the Korean Peninsula are still blowing.
Pyongyang also turned its eyes to the South and Kim Jong-un made a rare move of sending personal letters to Lee Hee-ho, widow of the late President Kim Dae-jung, and Hyun Jung-eun, chairwoman of Hyundai Asan. Seoul must actively reach out to Pyongyang. A strategy and the wisdom to use the North’s crisis as an opportunity is needed. If the Park Geun-hye administration fails to seize this opportunity and create a breakthrough in improving inter-Korean ties during the first half of next year, it will follow the Lee Myung-bak administration’s failure.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 26, Page 35
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie