A path for diplomatic successNearly two weeks into the new administration, dark clouds of impeachment have cleared. President Moon Jae-in’s inauguration speech was full of common sense and communication with the people. Thirteen days were enough time for South Koreans to realize that an “imperialistic presidency” was not a structural issue but a personal matter. The diplomacy of sending special envoys to the four powers is also impressive. Not surprisingly, his approval has hit 87 percent.
But good things come with bad. On May 14, North Korea launched another ballistic missile. Fortunately, the Blue House’s response was quick. It denounced the missile launch and called for the early establishment of a Korean missiles system and reinforcement of the Korea-U.S. alliance.
But there is another concern. In a visit to Seoul on May 16, the U.S. National Security Council’s senior director for Asia, Matt Pottinger, agreed that talks with North Korea are possible under the “right conditions.” But just what are the right conditions?
Unfortunately, time is not on our side. The Park administration hoped for an early collapse of the Kim Jong-un regime, believing sanctions and pressure would solve the problem. But the outcome was futile. Stanford University professor Siegfried Hecker concluded that Pyongyang is capable of producing six nuclear warheads a year. Just as its May 14 launch test evidently suggests, development of an ICBM that can strike the continental United States is not far off. Under such circumstances, “strategic patience” can no longer be the answer.
That’s why we cannot sit around and wait for the “right conditions.” To secure an initiative in nuclear resolution, preemptive talks with North Korea are essential. Of course, working-level talks may be difficult at this point. But roundabout ways should be used for behind-the-curtain contacts or civilian exchanges to grasp Pyongyang’s intention and prepare for talks between authorities. As there is no reason to set up preconditions, Washington’s approval is unnecessary for these preliminary, unofficial contacts. The companies that had operated in the Kaesong Industrial Complex should be allowed a limited visit to the facilities for check-up as a way to initiate exchanges and cooperation.
Opening the first door to negotiation is always difficult. The ultimate goal is North Korea’s denuclearization. But we can hardly take a step forward if we insist we will talk only after denuclearization. Pyongyang believes its nuclear program is necessary and will never abandon it voluntarily. While stirring Kim Jong-un with sanctions and pressure, an alternative path should be shown. “Freezing nuclear and missiles development” should be the entrance to the negotiation, and “nuclear abandonment” should be the exit. For the process from freezing to abandonment, we need to review the three-step roadmap from the agreement on February 13, 2007, on the shutdown of nuclear facilities, disabling and verifiable abandonment.
After defining the path we want to pursue, we must display as much flexibility as possible. The stick of “punishment for provocation” is maximized only when accompanied by the carrot of “flexible benefits in return.” As President Moon stated during the campaign, suspension of North Korea’s nuclear and missiles tests could be paired with the adjustment or temporary halt of the Korea-U.S. joint military exercises. Parallel pursuit of denuclearization and establishment of a peace system should also be proactively considered, because again, it is important to show a flexible attitude.
The 25 years of the North Korean nuclear threat has taught us the painful lesson of how important imagination and determination are. Until now, Korea has been easily decided by foreign powers. Last century’s colonial occupation, war and division were tragic products of foreign powers’ political contests. Considering the weight of the Korea-U.S. alliance and the geopolitical structure of Northeast Asia, it may be reckless to block the influence of our neighbors. However, it won’t be easy to give priority to inter-Korean relations over Korea-U.S. or Korea-China relations, either.
The time has come for us to turn the power of the people and the miracle of the candlelight demonstrations into a driving force for peace on the Korean Peninsula. The nuclear issue is a complicated challenge, but we can overcome it when we become one. Korea needs to stand at the center of the Korean Peninsula and East Asian diplomacy. In order not to be limited as a dependent variable of foreign powers, and to not repeat the fate of the Balkans, Korea needs to take initiative in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. This is how Moon will succeed — or fail.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 20, Page 27
*The author, a former professor emeritus at Yonsei University, is President Moon Jae-in’s special advisor for diplomacy and security affairs.