Whither South Korea? President-elect Roh's Dubious Foreign Policy Posture

 Some ten years ago I predicted, "As North Korea sees its nuclear program as the sine qua non to its regime survival, it is only too evident that it will never give up on its nuclear ambitions.

 Some ten years ago I predicted, "As North Korea sees its nuclear program as the sine qua non to its regime survival, it is only too evident that it will never give up on its nuclear ambitions." Recent events indicate that nuclear diplomacy vis-à-vis the DPRK over the past ten years has been for naught and any wishful notions of or hasty trust in a nuclear-free Korean peninsula have turned out to be a pipe dream. Yet voices calling for dialogue and diplomacy as the means to purportedly resolving this impenetrable problem grow louder by the day.  Perhaps such sanguine views might come from the sayings that there never was a "good war" or a "bad peace" and that diplomacy never takes "no" for an answer. 

We must be blunt: Pyongyang's nuclear problem cannot be fully resolved without fundamental changes to the Stalinist system of North Korea. More worrisome, for now, is the damage that has been done to the relationship between Seoul and Washington-and the volatile situation in the Korean peninsula that might further trigger dangerous developments.

Diplomacy as a solution to the challenge presented by Pyongyang's nuclear program has failed. What now remains for South Korea is to choose one of the following options.  It can join U.S.-led international efforts designed to bring an end to the totalitarian regime in Pyongyang. Or it can repudiate the link to Washington and embrace the north in a paroxysm of ethnic nationalism. 

In his recent meeting with the American presidential envoy James Kelly, president-elect Roh Moo Hyun is reported to have reaffirmed the importance of the Seoul-Washington alliance. It should be remembered, however, that the same positive emphasis was made at the time of the first summit between presidents Kim Dae Jung and George W. Bush in early March 2001. However, subsequently ROK-US relations rapidly deteriorated, to the point where a prominent American newspaper has denounced Kim as the "most anti-American president" in South Korean history. 

The fact that expressions such as "precious" or "important" were ceremoniously used in diplomatic language to characterize the ties between Washington and Seoul is not sufficient to ameliorate the ailing ROK-U.S. relationship that is now awash with distrust and discomfort. This is all more the case because Roh's other remarks have contributed to making Seoul one of Washington's "biggest foreign policy problems."

Roh rode to victory on the crest of widespread anti-American sentiments in South Korea.  Undoubtedly, he will remain obligated to these forces that helped propel him to power. Roh, however, needs to recognize that there is a major difference between being a candidate and being a president.  He must prevent his domestic political debts from affecting South Korea's diplomatic posture. The world of diplomacy differs from domestic politics in that normal states, even those with the advantage of enormous national power, tend to apply, for the sake of long-term national interests, a complex array of intelligence and tact to subtly advance their agenda.

Unfortunately, Roh, in his quest to enhance, in his view, South Korea's dignity as a sovereign state, has, in a matter of only a few weeks, ruffled relations with Washington.  Despite the enormous disparities in military power, he has demanded that South Korea be treated as an equal partner in the ROK-U.S. relationship.  He has attempted to position himself as a mediator between Washington and Pyongyang.  He has even insinuated the possible withdrawal of American forces from South Korea.

Yet, South Korea, in contrast to many other countries with comparable national power, faces more constraints in the conduct of its foreign affairs, with little margin for error.  Not only is there the intractable problem of North Korea, there is the geo-strategic reality that the Korean peninsula is the focal point for the interaction of four major regional powers in northeast Asia.  If President-elect Roh wishes to successfully conduct foreign policy, he needs to correct his erroneous diplomatic stance, re-evaluate his public statements and rein in those superfluous voices who pontificate about foreign policy with an eye to domestic politics.  In short, Roh must be realistic, bearing in mind the constraints and margins within which South Korean foreign policy must operate.

Roh's rhetoric notwithstanding, there is no wholly sovereign state in the real world today. The United States is no exception. Sovereign equality is but a textbook principle. The international political system is oligarchic in its structure and operation, as exemplified in the composition of the United Nations Security Council. On the other hand, it has become the general trend of the past several decades that the more states surrender their sovereignty for a larger good (e. g., regional integration or the creation of a multilateral alliance), the more they prosper. European integration-via the European Union and NATO-is a prime example. Only when states wish to shield themselves from their responsibilities do they loudly proclaim their intent to defend their sovereignty and pride. That such a hoarse and bitter refrain habitually emanates from the North Korean state-an international pariah without parallel, that has starved to death millions of its citizens-should come as no surprise.  It is, however, ironic that South Korea-one of the globe's ten largest economies, whose prosperity is built upon trade with and openness to the rest of the world-is tempted to sing such a woeful mantra of "sovereignty", particularly to the ears of the one ally indispensable to its security and well-being.