Guru calls for Koreas to resume talk to resolve problems on own initiatives
By Choi Sung-jin(The Korea Times)
The whole nation is seething with the scheduled deployment of a U.S. missile defense system by the end of next year.
People mainly talk about whether the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is environmentally safe, can actually intercept North Korea's nuclear missiles, and how Seoul must not let the missile shield alienate Beijing and Moscow, diplomatically and strategically, in a reversed priority of sorts.
As at least one Korean guru of international politics sees it, however, the entire episode is like putting the cart before the horse, mistaking means for ends.
Moon Chung-in, distinguished fellow of the Institute for Unification Studies at Yonsei University, thinks South Koreans might not have been involved in this dispute had the government genuinely strived to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis through dialogue instead of pressuring and blockading the reclusive regime. And he wonders why the Park Geun-hye administration is making the worst choice while it could make the best one.
Sounds too obvious to be of much realistic help at this moment? Probably not.
Moon, who was deeply involved in shaping inter-Korean relations under two liberal presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, regards the ongoing political and social turmoil as the result of failed North Korea policies of their two conservative successors over the past eight-and-a-half years. And he believes Seoul should, and can, take the lead in maintaining peace on the peninsula and keeping it from becoming a catalyst of a renewed Cold War.
The internationally renowned scholar of political science was the only academician who accompanied the late Presidents Kim and Roh to their summits with former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Yet he declined offers from President Roh to head the National Intelligence Service or National Security Council, saying, "The cobbler should stick to his last." Moon retired after 35 years of teaching in the U.S. and Korea last month. The Korea Times met him at the Kim Dae-jung Presidential Library and Museum where he serves as utive director.
Question: What do you think of the ongoing political and social turmoil?
Answer: To me, all this has the appearance of putting the cart before the horse. Things would not have gotten as bad as they are now if the government had put more energy and wisdom into a negotiated solution of North Korea's nuclear issue. What it did instead was to shut all the doors to such possibilities, bent on only isolating and blocking the North till the end. I can hardly understand why Seoul is going toward the worst choice while it can move to better ones.
Q: What are your views on the deployment of THAAD in this country?
A: I don't think it is a good idea, militarily, economically and diplomatically. From a military utility point of view, a battery with 48 interception missiles alone cannot defend South Korea from hundreds of North Korean missiles arriving from numerous angles and directions. Those who believe in THAAD will soon call for introducing more batteries, which cost trillions of won each but cannot discern nuclear warheads from decoys, a huge waste of taxpayer money. And China and Russia would never believe it targets only North Korea, perceiving it as a grave threat to their national security.
And such a "perception of threat" is highly subjective, which explains why the Chinese government has made clear that Seongju, a southeastern county as the proposed location for THAAD, could be its strategic target, in its first direct warning ever. I just hope the Korean Peninsula will not be the new divide between the northern axis composed of China, Russia, and North Korea, and the southern one of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. Calamitous history can start from a seemingly trifling event.
Q: The latest agreement between Seoul and Washington seems to have been made at the behest of the U.S. What could be the reasons for the U.S. to hurry?
A: President Barack Obama might have wanted to complete his "pivot to Asia" policy with the deployment of THAAD in South Korea. And his military aides might have thought it would be safe to deploy while a conservative government is in power in Seoul. But I believe President Park Geun-hye might have wanted its deployment more badly than the Americans wanted it after North Korea's fourth nuclear test and Musudan missile launch in January this year.
Q: What's the biggest reason North Koreans stick to their nuclear programs?
A: It's the survival of the state and the regime through nuclear deterrence. North Koreans strongly perceive the U.S. will use nuclear weapons against them in the case of war. They of course know their dozens of warheads are nothing against America's several thousands, but want to maintain "minimal deterrence" by being able to hit U.S. troops in South Korea, Japan and Guam. The North's leadership also hopes it would solidify its legitimacy and regime security by enhancing its international prestige. And they want it to increase their bargaining leverage and gain bigger concessions from their adversaries.
Q: Why is the relationship between the Koreas at its lowest in decades?
A: I would characterize the two conservative governments of the past eight-and-a-half years by three "nos" – no information, no competency and no responsibility.
They were mostly ignorant of what's happening in North Korea. Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye said North Korea would collapse soon and unification is imminent. It was due to the dismal failure of intelligence about the North. Politicization and even purposeful distortion of intelligence about the North by collection and analysis agencies to please their final consumer, the chief utive, has been responsible for such failure.
They were incompetent, failing to keep their promises to resolve the nuclear crisis peacefully through negotiations. Without really trying to denuclearize the North or at least freeze further progress, the two administrations dragged their feet, saying, "Time is on our side." While achieving almost nothing in inter-Korean affairs, they resorted to the (North's) collapse theory toward the end of their tenures.
And they were irresponsible, putting all the blame on North Korea, and, to a less extent, China for failing to put the brakes on its communist ally. They believe South Korea and the U.S. have done nothing wrong, sharing not a modicum of responsibility, even a moral one.
Q: Hawks oppose dialogue with North Korea, claiming it has never stopped developing nuclear weapons even when they had talks with the South and the U.S.
A: I do not agree with them. Since the first nuclear crisis of 1994 was resolved by the Geneva Agreed Framework, North Korea had kept its promise of suspending nuclear development, freezing the plutonium plant in Yongbyon and letting IAEA inspectors be stationed in the country. The second nuclear crisis broke out in 2002 after the North felt the U.S. dragged its feet in implementing the Geneva Agreement.
While sticking to its pledge to freeze the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, however, it turned toward the highly enriched uranium program as a hedge. Let's face reality. While the six-party talks were going on, the North made no nuclear provocations. It was in October 2006 when the U.S. tightened the financial noose around the North that the regime conducted its first nuclear test. As we all know, North Korea carried out the following three nuclear tests when the six-party talks stalled, and inter-Korean relations worsened.
Q: What should South Korea do to turn the current situation around?
A: To start with, the South and its leaders need to drop the wrong idea that the nuclear crisis is an issue between North Korea and the U.S. The truth is that only South Korea can alter the attitude of its biggest ally. Former President Kim Young-sam threatened to terminate the alliance unless the U.S. under the Bill Clinton administration abandoned its plans for a "surgical strike" on the Yongbyon nuclear facilities.
Later, President Kim Dae-jung managed to revive his Sunshine Policy through tenacious persuasion of conservative U.S. President George W. Bush in February 2002, and even the allegedly anti-U.S. President Roh Moo-hyun pulled off the February 13, 2007, agreement to freeze the North's nuclear development through a summit with Bush in October 2006, pressuring the U.S. President until the latter felt "mortified," according to the memoir of Condolezza Rice.
President Obama and his diplomatic aide, Jeff Bader, had some reservations about North Korea from the start, and the North's launch of a long-range rocket just before his speech on a "nuclear weapons free world" in Prague on April 5, 2009, confirmed their convictions. As previous examples show, however, no one can influence Obama more than the South Korean President as far as US-North Korean affairs are concerned.
It's clearly obvious that the two Koreas are the most important parties in issues related with the Korean Peninsula. With regards to the "intensity of preference," no one can beat North Korea. For its leader and elite, nuclear weapons and U.S.-North Korean relations are a matter of life and death. For the U.S. and China, however, the Korean Peninsula may be out of their top-10 priority issues. Even if South Korea is small fry compared with the G2, it can move the giant partners if its leader is determined enough. Instead the two conservative leaders went the opposite way, watching the faces of the big countries.
Q: How should Seoul behave between Washington and Beijing?
A: It has few other options but to take a balancing strategy while trying to maintain the status quo. But the current pattern of relying on the U.S. for security and depending on China for its economy will not work any longer. All we can do is a "mini-max strategy," minimizing risks and maximizing benefits in our relations with the two superpowers.
It would be good if South Korea could take the lead in creating a multilateral cooperation order for the economy and the security of Northeast Asia which would allow Seoul to avoid the diplomacy of taking sides. But that is not possible without improving inter-Korean relations first.
Q: How should Koreans seek the unification of their divided nation?
A: It will be a long, gradual and complicated process, not coming all of a sudden as some conservatives think or hope. They cite the German unification as an example, which is completely wrong. The two Germanys had numerous and wide exchanges in political, economic and social areas before unification. The collapse of the Berlin Wall was like the last straw on the camel's back. Even if North Korea implodes, the North Koreans would never give up their sovereignty if inter-Korean ties remain as they are now.
Q: Not a few compare the current Korea to that of about 120 years ago. What do you think?
A: There are people who believe the four surrounding powers determine the fate of Korea. I don't agree with their balance of power determinism. The late 19th century should never recur. This is the 21st century and Korea is not the Joseon Kingdom. Koreans can change the security situation surrounding their divided peninsula, depending on what they think ― and do.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: I will be teaching at Yonsei University's Songdo Campus as a distinguished professor emeritus starting this fall semester. And I will also be teaching at the University of California in San Diego as a Krause Distinguished Fellow every winter quarter. I am also planning to write, at least one book each year hopefully.
Q: No further plans to use your learning and experiences for the country?
A: I am ready to play a role if need, not as an administrator but as an advisor. I have so far been an unsuccessful scholar and professor. I don't want to end as one.
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