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[Herald Interview] ‘Seoul should be flexible in reopening inter-Korean dialogue’

Obama bungles Washington’s N.K. policy due to shortsightedness, Moon says

Seoul needs wider flexibility in reopening inter-Korean dialogue, a political scientist said, urging the Park Geun-hye administration to actively engage in “preventive diplomacy” with Pyongyang to keep cross-border tensions from escalating.

Moon Chung-in, a political science professor at Yonsei University, stressed that the nation should be proactive in tackling North Korean issues, noting that after all, the South would have to bear the full brunt of any conflict on the peninsula.

Moon Chung-in (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
Moon Chung-in (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

“The raison d’être of a state lies in securing the safety of its nation by reducing military tensions and preventing a war. That is why preventive diplomacy is so important. But there seems to be little effort to engage in such a diplomacy,” he told The Korea Herald.

“President Park has so far been rigidly adhering to the principle of ‘only official and transparent contact (with the North).’ She needs to be more flexible with regard to the mode of contacts (either official or unofficial) with Pyongyang.”

As for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s expected visit to Russia in May to attend the 70th anniversary celebration of the victory in World War II, Moon said the world needs to create more opportunities for Kim to come out onto the global stage to help induce a positive change in the isolated state.

“Unlike his father, he can speak English, and his leadership style could also change by listening to what other leaders say,” he said. “When the international community recognizes the North as a legitimate member, it will behave in line with international rules, norms and standards.”

Commenting on Washington’s hitherto unfruitful policy toward Pyongyang, the scholar said that U.S. President Barack Obama apparently looks at Pyongyang as a target for regime change rather than a legitimate interlocutor, given his recent remarks on the possible collapse of the North Korean regime.

“Obama might think his country can demonize the North and achieve a regime change there, but that is hubris. And he thinks information can seep into the North, eventually bringing about a change, but that shows his ignorance,” he said.

“His comment about regime collapse also shows the shortsightedness of U.S. policymakers including Obama who have not thought deeply about the profound consequences of a regime change in the North.”

The following are excerpts of the interview with professor Moon.

The Korea Herald: Some say Kim’s expected visit to Russia in May will be a move to ignore the North’s long-standing tradition of visiting China first to underscore its diplomatic priorities. What do you think about this?


Moon Chung-in: China did the same thing. President Xi Jinping visited Seoul first before Pyongyang, breaking a traditional code. Given the strained ties with Beijing, Pyongyang could use the Russian visit card in order to draw China’s attention. In addition, the North has also maintained a long-standing traditional relationship with Russia. At present, Russia and North Korea are in a similar predicament; both of them are suffering from sanctions imposed by the U.S and other Western nations. From the perspective of Chinese leader Xi, it would be good to see the two countries -- both bordering China -- getting along well. It would be bad for China if the two neighbors were caught in a conflict, creating instability along its borders.

KH: The inter-Korean impasse has continued for many years. How do you think the two Koreas can achieve a breakthrough to break the deadlock?

Moon
: On Dec. 29 last year, Ryoo Kihl-jae, unification minister and vice chair of South Korea’s presidential committee to prepare for reunification, made a dialogue offer to the North. Then, in his New Year’s policy briefing (to President Park Geun-hye), he also put forward a set of proposals including inter-Korean talks. But these proposals came unilaterally without any prior consultation with the North. What’s also noteworthy is that the ideas, put forward by Seoul, had already been included in the inter-Korean summit declarations on June 15, 2000, and Oct. 4, 2007. Had Seoul mentioned that it made these offers because there were such agreements in past declarations, then it would have been much easier for the North to accept them. The North might have been suspicious of the intentions behind Seoul’s overtures.

Moreover, the Key Resolve South Korea-U.S. military exercise will begin in March with the Foal Eagle training to come later that month. The North has called for the cancellation of the drills in return for a moratorium on nuclear tests, but the U.S. rejected the offer. The North also demanded that the South lift the so-called May 24 sanctions as a precondition to hold reunions of separated families, But Seoul flatly rejected it. So chances for any immediate inter-Korean dialogue seem rather dim.

In my opinion, Seoul can be more flexible. It can contact Pyongyang and say that it can’t cancel the drills, but can consider decreasing the scale, intensity, and duration of the exercises instead, and decide not to mobilize strategic weapons systems for the drills. Seoul then can reciprocally demand Pyongyang to scale down its winter military drills and agree to hold reunions of separated families. When the reunions are held, the two sides may be able to discuss the resumption of the tours to Mount Geumgangsan, which could potentially lead to the lifting of the May 24 sanctions. But these prospects seem rather far-fetched for now.

Should the South Korea-U.S. drills be launched as scheduled and the U.S. forward-deploy their strategic weapons, the North would react very sensitively, which would heighten military tensions. And we never know if the North would push ahead with its fourth nuclear test in April or May. This would apparently weaken the voices of those in the South who are in favor of dialogue with the North, and escalate tension on the peninsula. Then President Park Geun-hye could end up losing a golden opportunity to improve cross-border relations in the crucial third year of her five-year term, after which she could fall into lame-duck status.

KH: Seoul and Washington say that the issue of a nuclear moratorium and their military drills are unrelated. Seoul has also argued that the issue of lifting the May 24 sanctions should be separated from the issue of holding reunions of separated families. What do you think?


Moon: The raison d‘être of a state lies in securing the safety of its nation by reducing military tensions and preventing the outbreak of a war. That is why preventive diplomacy is so important. But there seems to be little effort to engage in such preventive diplomacy. The two Koreas have expressed their desire to hold inter-Korean dialogue, but they have yet to meet halfway. I believe Seoul should make unofficial contact with Pyongyang for selecting the agenda and narrowing policy differences before official meetings. Without such a process official North-South meetings are bound to fail. But President Park has so far been rigidly adhering to the principle of “only official and transparent contact.” She needs to be more flexible with regard to the mode of contacts with Pyongyang.

KH: The thorniest issue in the relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, and between Washington and Pyongyang is the North’s pursuit of nuclear power status. Pyongyang has adopted the policy of simultaneously developing nuclear arms and its economy, and has stated in its constitution that it is a nuclear power. Given this, can those relations be fundamentally improved?

Moon: Officials as well as pundits in Seoul and Washington believe that Pyongyang has been pursuing nuclear arms for regime survival rather than for national security. But this is not a right reasoning. Pyongyang seeks to have nuclear arms for both reasons. The North believes the possession of nuclear arms is the best method to ensure its national security and regime survival, because in North Korea’s monolithic “suryong” (supreme leader) system, there is no distinction between regime’s security and national security. Conservatives in the West and South Korea do not appear to understand this.

After all, North Korea’s perception of its utmost threat stems from the U.S.’ nuclear potential and possible aggression. Pyongyang regards the provision of America’s nuclear umbrella to the South through extended deterrence as the most pressing threat. The collapse of Libya and Iraq convinced the North that it should not look weak, since otherwise it could also face a fatal destiny. Thus the South and the U.S. need to address the North’s security concerns. For that, the allies should take a more proactive stance on issues ranging from improving the U.S.-North Korea relations to establishing a peace regime on the peninsula. But without taking any such stance, South Korea and the U.S. have been calling on the North to denuclearize first. Would the North do that?

In early March 2012, Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho of the North visited New York for a conference in which then-Senator John Kerry and Henry Kissinger participated as part of the panel. I was among them. There, Ri said to Kerry, “There are four countries that have no diplomatic ties with the U.S. in the world-- Cuba, Bhutan, Iran and North Korea. Bhutan did not want to open diplomatic relations with the U.S., and Iran and Cuba once had diplomatic ties with the U.S., although their relations were severed later on. But the North is the only country that the U.S. never recognized diplomatically.” Kerry, in response, said no senator including himself would be willing to ratify the diplomatic normalization treaty with Pyongyang unless it gave up its nuclear arms. This means the North should change first. It will be very hard for the North to accommodate such a demand unilaterally.

KH: Some commentators called the U.S. policy toward the North “strategic patience.” How do you assess the U.S. policy?

Moon: Last month, President Obama mentioned the possibility of the North Korean regime collapsing. I think that illustrates what Obama has kept in mind with regard to North Korea. Obama’s thoughts about the North have also been revealed in a memoir written by Jeff Bader, who served as the senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council.

KH: Yes. I read the section of his memoir in which he said that many in the administration thought that a regime change may be the only option to make the North renounce its nuclear program.

Moon: Sure. That idea still continues to prevail in the Obama administration. During his presidential campaign, Obama stated he is willing to sit down for talks with Iran and North Korea. But at the time of the presidential transition committee, Obama appeared to have no desire for dialogue and looked at the North as a target for regime change. On April 5, 2009, several hours before Obama addressed his “nuclear weapons-free world” speech in Prague, the North launched a rocket, which might have led Obama to form a negative impression. Since then, demonization of North Korea appeared to have begun. In addition, Obama was not able to pay sufficient attention to the North with so many other issues on his foreign policy agenda -- a reason why anti-Pyongyang bureaucrats took charge of North Korean issues. In the end, “strategic patience” was no different from the “malign neglect” or “hostile neglect” that the Bush’s first-term administration adopted. After all, in the Jan. 21 interview with YouTube, Obama laid bare his true intentions about the North -- that there is no option other than a regime change to resolve the nuclear issue involving Pyongyang.

But in my opinion, Obama’s idea of regime change in North Korea seems very much misleading. He might think his country can demonize the North and achieve a regime change there, but that is hubris. And he thinks information can seep into the North, eventually bringing about a change there, but that shows his ignorance of North Korean society. His comment about the regime collapse also shows the shortsightedness of U.S. policymakers including Obama who have not thought deeply about the profound consequences of a regime change in the North. In a nutshell, the Obama administration’s hubris, ignorance and shortsightedness have bungled its North Korea policy.

KH: Obama has about two more years left in office. Is there a possibility that Washington-Pyongyang relations might improve?

Moon: Given current developments, it seems hardly plausible for North Korea and the U.S. to improve bilateral ties. But it all depends on Seoul, and how Seoul and Beijing cooperate. The U.S. appears to think that South Korea and China, not to mention Japan, are siding with the U.S. when it comes to the North Korean nuclear issue. But that seems to be a misunderstood proposition. Since the South would have to bear the full brunt of any instability or collapse in the North or military clashes on the peninsula, Seoul could become more proactive in tackling North Korean issues.

Seoul could move to resume the six-party talks at an early date, and seek to enhance cross-border ties despite U.S. moves to toughen sanctions against the North. In my view, the South should take the initiative. The U.S. has been sort of a bothersome bystander. As the U.S. doesn’t respond to its calls for the unconditional resumption of the talks, China has grown sick and tired in which some sort of fatigue effects set in motion. The North should also realize that it cannot make any turnaround in the deadlock without South Korea’s help. Thus, the North should accept South Korea’s offer for talks to discuss a wide range of issues including the nuclear issue. The North has been arguing that its nuclear program can be discussed only with the U.S. But such rigid and stupid thinking has been a hindrance to productive talks.

KH: China has stepped up its diplomacy with neighboring states. And it has also pushed for a variety of initiatives such as a maritime Silk Road, the initiative to build an Asian security mechanism and the establishment of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. What do you think about all these moves?

Moon: During the previous Hu Jintao government, China adopted the “sanlin” foreign policy toward its neighbors, which consists of “mulin,” “anlin” and “fulin,” or an “amicable, secure and prosperous neighborhood.” But the Xi Jinping government has put forward the principles of “qin cheng hui rong” -- meaning the principles of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness in conducting its periphery diplomacy. With this policy vision, China has paid much attention to maintaining good relations with its neighbors. Why? There are reasons.

Unlike the U.S., China has more than 20 neighbors with which it shares land and maritime borders. China can focus on economic development based on stable relations with these neighboring states. Should any border conflicts arise -- like the ones with Vietnam, India and Russia in the past, China may feel unnerved. Also such a neighborhood policy is an inevitable choice amid its ascent to the international stage. How can China take on a leadership role if it has shaky relations with its neighbors? So I don’t think we need to look at China’s diplomatic moves with great suspicion. Some raise concerns that these moves are intended to expand China’s sphere of influence. But what’s wrong with that? The U.S. has projected its power all the way into the Western Pacific and has been doing an offshore balancing act.

KH: What do you think about Japan’s failure to fully atone for its wartime enslavement of Asian women, euphemistically called comfort women?

Moon: Abe committed three fallacies regarding the comfort women issue. The first is the fallacy of technicality. Tokyo has said the victims were mobilized not by the Japanese Army but by Korean civilian brokers who brought the young women to frontline brothels. They have argued that Japan as a state did not forcibly drag them to the brothels. But that shows their lack of understanding about the wartime mobilization system from 1938 through 1944 when even all metal items including metal bowls and plates, in addition to young women and others, in all houses in rural areas across the nation were taken away to support combat missions. So it is a fallacy to argue the victims were not forcibly taken to the brothels.

The second is the fallacy of legality. Tokyo says all issues concerning its colonization of Korea were settled through the 1965 deal that normalized bilateral relations, but the comfort women issue was not covered under the deal. Lastly, is the fallacy of proportionality. Some people say the number of victims is 2,000 or 20,000. Tokyo says the number is far smaller than that. But the issue involving universal norms and morality is not a matter of proportionality. Even if there had been only one victim, Japan should have apologized for that. As long as Japan does not rectify these fallacies, it would be difficult to improve Seoul-Tokyo relations.

KH: What do you think about Abe’s mantra of “proactive pacifism”?

Moon: I once had a chance to talk with a professor who was a policy adviser for Prime Minister Abe. I asked him if the term “positive peace” made sense to him. I explained that in international relations theory, there are two kinds of peace -- “positive peace” and “negative peace.” Positive peace is a state of durable peace in which no structural causes of war or violence exist -- an ideal state of peace where justice, equality and justice materialize. Achieving negative peace is managing unstable peace through military deterrence, alliances, confidence-building measures and arms control -- in other words, managing the status quo of unstable peace. Abe first used the term positive peace and then changed it to proactive pacifism as some had taken issue with the term.

During a speech at the Hudson Institute in September 2012, Abe said, “You may call me a right-wing militarist, if you want. But we cannot help but build a military that can win a war -- amid the rise of China.” Under his proactive pacifism drive, he has sought to secure the right to collective self-defense, establish the National Security Council, enact a secrecy law, jack up defense spending and rewrite the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. This does not seem to match what Abe calls proactive pacifism, as these moves do not make neighboring states feel secure. Even though Abe says he is advocating proactive pacifism, (his campaign) appears to carry some traits of warmongering.

This is the eighth and last installment in a special New Year’s series of interviews with preeminent scholars on international politics and security. -- Ed.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)

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