By Kim Young-jin
North Korea’s deadly shelling of a southern island clearly reinforces the importance of the United States-South Korea alliance and argues compellingly for China to toughen up on its communist ally, a prominent American expert said Thursday in Seoul.
“If there’s any silver lining at all … is that it has reminded the entire world about what the dangers are and how important it is that the United States and Korea work together,” Strobe Talbott, head of the Washington-based think tank Brookings Institution told a forum of the Korea Foundation.
His remarks came a day after the allies wrapped up four days of joint naval drills in the West Sea aimed to deter further North Korean provocation but concern remains high that more such behavior could be on its way.
“This public display is not just of hard power … but also the extent to which these two military forces are working hand-in-hand to deter, and, if necessary, respond to further provocations or aggression from the North is extremely important,” said Talbott, who served as deputy secretary of state under the Clinton administration.
Tension has reached its highest point in decades in the wake of the Nov. 23 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island by the North that killed four South Koreans, with both sides threatening military action if further provoked.
Government officials including outgoing Defense Minister Kim Tae-young warn that Pyongyang could commit additional attacks now that the drills are over.
China, the North’s main benefactor, has been under fire from the international community to pressure Pyongyang to cease its belligerence. Its proposal to hold six-party talks in a bid to deescalate the situation was rejected by Washington and Seoul, who are unwilling to “talk for the sake of talking.”
Analysts say Beijing refrains from condemning it for fear of causing instability within the borders of its neighbor.
“One thing we should talk about is what we can do together to make sure that … China plays a less ambiguous role in what it has to say on the subject of North Korean behavior,” Talbott said.
Richard Bush, another expert with Brookings told the forum that the shelling and the North’s alleged attack on the South Korean frigate Cheonan in March have “educative value” for Beijing.
“What we can hope for is a cumulative effect and that every time North Korea does something that works against China’s interests that Washington and Seoul remind Beijing that ‘you created this problem.’ Sooner or later I hope this will have an effect,” he said.
Bush said he does not expect the North to give up its nuclear weapons and that the best chance for policy change in Pyongyang will be when a new regime consolidates power. “If that does not happen, the United States, Korea and Japan are going to have to deal with the reality of the North for a long time,” he said.
Talbott added the incident could increase support for the long-stalled Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (KORUS FTA) being passed by the new Congress.
The two sides are narrowing differences, mainly on autos, in last-minute negotiations in Washington after failing to do so when President Barack Obama was here to attend the G20 Seoul Summit.
“Ratification of the FTA is not a slam dunk in the National Assembly here and certainly not one in the U.S. congress. North Korea has reminded us that that the KORUS FTA has not only an economic significance but a strategic significance as well,” he said.
The pact was initially signed in 2007 but has hit snags due to the auto and beef trade. Analysts say its ratification would represent a strategic boon for the United States in Northeast Asia, where foreign relations are increasingly about trade.