Where are we heading?

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Where are we heading?

The capabilities of a nation are revealed in moments of crisis. The Park Geun-hye administration successfully brought public opinion together after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and missile launch. The Ministry of National Defense said it would begin talks with Washington on deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system, and the Ministry of Unification shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex. In a National Assembly address, the president mentioned the possible collapse of the North Korean regime. The majority of citizens seem to believe in the Park administration.

But what are its goals going forward? First, we want to bring North Korea to its senses through intense sanctions. But this is not enough. In the course of pressuring the North, we should not unnecessarily provoke neighbors, especially China. This is a prerequisite for the survival of the nation.

To attain this goal, we need to solve the complicated issue of Thaad deployment. It is our right as a sovereign state to protect our security. It is not something China should be meddling with. The United States tried to give assurances to China that the system’s X-band radar is fixed on North Korea and not on China.

Still, China is sensitive. Its official news agency claimed China could disable the Thaad system in an hour. China considers the deployment a completion of the Korea-U.S.-Japan missile defense system surrounding China. President Xi Jinping personally asked Park to express opposition if the United States tries to deploy a Thaad battery in Korea.

Even though there is only one truth, there can always be different views. U.S. defense technology company Lockheed Martin knows the capabilities and purposes of Thaad most accurately. As Peking University Prof. Jin Jingyi said, the United States - not Korea - should explain to China why Thaad would not be such a bad thing. But only five hours after North Korea’s missile launch following a nuclear test a few weeks earlier, the South’s Defense Ministry hurriedly declared it would negotiate deployment of Thaad with the United States. That move was hard to understand.

Seoul voluntarily took a risk it did not need to take. Twelve days after the Defense Ministry’s declaration, the exchange rate of the Korean won to U.S. dollar surged by 37 won to 1,233.4 won last Friday. That was the highest level in five years and eight months. Domestic and international credit agencies are watching the so-called Korea risk. If China retaliates by reducing the number of Chinese tourists coming to Korea or delays business licensing and approval procedures for Korean companies operating there, the situation could get serious.

The complete shutdown of the Kaesong industrial park is regrettable. Rating agency Moody’s said the shutdown will have an adverse impact on South Korea’s credit rating. Japan imposed sanctions but allowed money transfers below 100,000 yen ($900) for humanitarian purposes.

The nuclear armament theory that the ruling party’s floor leader is backing is even harder to understand. If South Korea joins the nuclear race, we will be in the same position as North Korea. The South would leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and be sanctioned by the international community. The South Korea-U.S. alliance would break down, and the U.S. Forces Korea would withdraw. The Korean economy would collapse at once because it is so highly dependent on trade. Korea is a high-energy-consuming country, with the fourth-highest proportion of nuclear power generation in the world. All of the uranium used in our nuclear power plants is purchased from France and processed in the United States in low-enriched form. Once Korea is armed with nuclear weapons, uranium imports would be cut off and Korea will be left in the dark. Is this what the self-described patriots who champion nuclear armaments want?

President Park’s leadership is strong. But it is uncertain whether the foreign policy and security team had sufficient strategic review before the president made her decision. The Korean Peninsula has a shameful history of being an international battlefield after losing internal cohesion. When the 1894 Donghak Peasant Revolution broke out, the Joseon dynasty was pressed and asked for the Qing army’s help. As if waiting for China’s involvement, Japanese forces kicked off the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and defeated China. After winning the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) as well, Japan took over Korea. Kim Il Sung’s misjudgment started the Korean War in 1950, and it quickly turned into a contest of powers. South Korea transferred military command to the United States in July 1950. North Korea transferred its command to China in December. War clouds hang over the Korean Peninsula again. Do we have a strategy to prevent the tragedy from being repeated?

The Park administration completely ruled out the possibility of talks, but China and the United States have considered a peace treaty with the North. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed simultaneously pursuing denuclearization and a peace treaty on the peninsula. Robert Gallucci, former assistant secretary of state and the U.S. negotiator for the 1994 Geneva Agreement, said Washington should use the nuclear test to encourage Pyongyang to return to the negotiation table. The Wall Street Journal reported that Washington and Pyongyang discussed a peace treaty several days before the North’s fourth nuclear test. We are concerned about Seoul being isolated in the talks. Korea’s destiny should not be forged by powerful nations.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 24, Page 31

The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Ha-kyung
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