Proposals for nuclear diplomacy
The international society has not come up with a unified voice and position to punish North Korea, even as it followed up its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6 with a satellite rocket launch designed to test ballistic missile technology last weekend. The usual step for Seoul after a nuclear test should have been to elevate coordination with Beijing and Moscow to draw their support in unanimous United Nations Security Council resolutions and sanctions. Then it should have moderated the sanction terms to formulate a collaborated front among Seoul, Washington, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow against Pyongyang for future six-party talks. So what went wrong?
Last month’s testing of a nuclear device, or purported hydrogen bomb, was enough to anger China and Russia. It should have given a good reason for the two governments to set aside geopolitical calculations for the cause of nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Instead of jumping straight into negotiations for punishing Pyongyang, Washington and Beijing waged a blame game for neglecting and worsening the North Korean nuclear problem. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Beijing to coordinate the matter produced few outcomes as Washington and Beijing kept up with their exchanges of pointed comments about who was more to blame, giving Beijing the pretext to put off the discussions for Security Council resolutions after the Lunar New Year holiday in February.
Pyongyang used the hiatus to prepare for a launch of a so-called Earth observation satellite. Dumbfounded, Beijing quickly sent China’s chief representative in the six-party talks, Wu Dawei, to Pyongyang to talk the unruly regime out of the plan. The rocket was nevertheless fired off ahead of schedule. It was another momentum for the two global powers to toughen up against Pyongyang. But they again instead wasted it with another round of verbal spat. Washington called Pyongyang’s long-range missile test “a slap in the face right at Beijing.” Beijing snapped back that Washington would know better whose face North Korea actually had slapped.
Amid little show of a concerted front, countries have been turning out separate actions toward North Korea. Seoul has initiated negotiations with Washington to deploy contentious U.S. missile shield dubbed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) and shut down the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex. Tokyo renewed unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang, while Washington passed reinforced sanctions legislation on North Korea. How these solo acts can generate a synergy effect on Security Council decisions remains unclear. Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow have joined to raise opposition against the move on Thaad. The two could act together to serve their geopolitical and security causes.
Meanwhile, voices in South Korea have turned decisively hard-line. Most of them are unrealistic and irrational - from South Korea going nuclear-armed to emotional disgruntlement toward Beijing and Moscow.
All these developments call for a new framework in diplomacy on a nuclear-capable North Korea. First of all, we must be cool- and level-headed. Authorities must not be swept up by political and populist opinions. Our foreign policy had often been swayed by political and ideological considerations. The government should keep itself distant from political views, especially with the elections coming up in April. Instead, it should study the international context and re-examine our capabilities as well as limitations. It is foolish to think that we could act out our wishes when world politics remain cruel. Our influence remains restrained as we have never dared to act solo like Israel.
Even under worsened circumstances, we must continue diplomatic endeavors with China and Russia. North Korea’s nuclear power to us is a life-or-death matter, but to others, there are various other geopolitical factors to be considered. We must calmly and persistently persuade China and Russia to work toward a peaceful solution. We must act as a facilitator between Washington and Beijing and Moscow for a common cause.
During this process, we must read the relationship among global powers clearly. Relations between the two key players - China and the United States - have long been strained. Kerry’s visit to Beijing was scheduled as part of his tour of Cambodia and Laos, which China interpreted as Washington’s preparation for a summit with Asean to contain China’s influence. Beijing also had been annoyed by a U.S. warship venturing near islets in the South China Sea.
It was no surprise the two countries failed to narrow the divide during Kerry’s visit to Beijing. The Washington-Moscow relationship remains sour after the Ukraine crisis. The Thaad issue has only complicated the matter.
Under such challenging conditions, we must be more creative on North Korea policy and thoroughly prepared when dealing with global powers. We must be able to make our stand and show consistency and persistence in our policy. Our diplomacy faces its biggest test. We must be united among ourselves. We cannot let North Korea get away with possessing weapons of mass destruction and causing a divide between ourselves and our global allies.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 18, Page 33
The author, former head of the Office of Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs, is a visiting professor of politics and diplomacy at Seoul National University.
by Wi Sung-lac