What comes after the MERS scare?

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What comes after the MERS scare?

The entire nation is panicked from the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). And although we hope this will be the last crisis, concerns have arisen that inter-Korean relations may face yet another catastrophe. If the two Koreas continue to confront each other as they are now, the possibility of renewed crisis appears high.

The lesson from the Sewol ferry sinking last year and the recent MERS outbreak is simple: It highlights how prevention is critical. And there is no need to stress the importance of prevention when it comes to a military clash or war.

When civilian or military casualties occur, the argument for retaliation only becomes stronger, and it becomes even more difficult to keep conflict from expanding into full-blown war. That is why military deterrence and the Korea-U.S. alliance are the least necessities for us, but not the best option. Preventive diplomacy to stop all possible crises is more ideal.

Preventive diplomacy is about building communication channels and trust to prevent a military clash based on a misunderstanding or a miscalculation. To this end, all messages and signals must be studied carefully and responded to with flexibility. If this is about a reclusive North Korea, the analysis must be more careful and the response should be more flexible. Only then can the North’s military threat - a permanent factor in our reality - be effectively managed.

Until now, the North had signaled a few times that it would like to change the mood. The most representative sign was the visit last October by three top officials - Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yang-gon - at the close of the Incheon Asian Games. However, it failed to work out after civic groups launched leaflets critical of the regime across the border.

Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address can be interpreted similarly. Although the North presented typical preconditions, it hinted at its intention to improve inter-Korean ties. So if the South had responded positively, the situation would be very different now. The North also reacted the same towards the United States. On Jan. 9, the North sent a message through its New York channel saying that it could not only halt its nuclear tests, but would do more if Washington and Seoul temporarily halted annual joint military exercises. And yet, the U.S. State Department turned down the offer after just 10 hours.

Washington also dismissed Pyongyang’s proposal to return to the six-party talks without preconditions, calling it an empty promise. Trust cannot be built under this situation.

And the outcome is nothing surprising. North Korea has seemingly given up on talks with the Obama administration and is currently continuing to pursue its nuclear ambitions. It even declared that nuclear weapons were a means for justice - a way to defend peace and prosperity.

Pyongyang also responded coldly toward the South’s proposal for talks concerning the resumption of six-party talks and has continued to criticize and insult President Park Geun-hye and her administration.

May to June was considered a golden opportunity for inter-Korean relations. But timing is not on the North’s side, nor is it on our side. In order to prevent tensions from escalating, as well as crises, creative and preventive diplomacy is needed now more than any other time.

First, a new exit strategy should be created in time with President Park’s visit to Washington next week. Cooperating with the United States to sanction and pressure North Korea is no longer a viable option. We are in desperate need of a Seoul-Washington alliance that will persuade Pyongyang to cooperate.

We have had numerous discussions about resuming tourism on Mount Kumgang, and this issue needs to be resolved now. The North said it will apologize for the incident, in which a South Korean tourist was fatally shot, and promise to guarantee tourist safety. There is no reason not to resume the tour.

Some said bulk cash will be given to the North to restart the Mount Kumgang tour. But based on that argument, the Kaesong Industrial Complex should also be shut down. Only after the Mount Kumgang tour is resumed, can we think about the next step, including reunions for families separated by the war and the creation of an ecological peace park inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

The key, above all, are the May 24 measures. The South Korean government cannot reverse its stance that the sanctions will not be lifted until the North apologizes for its sinking of the ROK Cheonan in 2010. And Pyongyang has consistently denied it was responsible, so it will not abruptly make an apology.

Taking into account this standstill, it is realistic for Seoul to positively review the North Korean National Defense Commission’s proposal to begin a joint investigation.

Since our investigation and its outcome are solid, there is no reason to hesitate. If we can prove before the entire world that Pyongyang was responsible for the attack, then we can find a new way to resolve the May 24 measures and the inter-Korean deadlock.

It will not be easy and it will require enormous courage. But if that will prevent a war and improve relations between the two Koreas to prepare for unification and bring about peace to the Korean Peninsula, it is worth trying.

Now is the time to throw off this feeling of inertia and adopt an unconventional kind of preventive diplomacy to make new moves.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 8, Page 31

*The author is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.

by Moon Chung-in

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