President Can Learn Lesson From Engagement Policy
Barely two months into President Lee Myung-bak's five-year term, there is growing confusion and apprehension about the direction of South Korean policy toward North Korea and the United States.
New and clearer statements of principle and indications that there would be consistency in fundamental policy direction by the new administration had encouraged many observers to anticipate renewed U.S.-South Korea coordination and modest forward movement this year in the long-running diplomatic effort to disarm North Korea of its nuclear weapons capability.
The public declaration of a roadmap for North-South progress and regional development is welcome. New realism and honesty about the place of human rights in North Korea's development are overdue and welcome. Transparency in North-South dealings is required by the South Korean system.
But missteps, internal divisions, and a lingering sense that key officials in the new government maintain a pre-1997 world view are causing a reevaluation of the prospects for progress on denuclearization this year, and for closer South Korean-U.S. relations beginning next year.
Lost opportunities for quiet dialogue between the North and the new President; early public diplomacy which emphasized coercion and set preconditions for continued engagement; and the impression that the pace of South-North relations would now be delegated to the United States have all provoked responses that are likely to make the coming months far more difficult for the Korean government than necessary.
Conditions for Progress Remain Good
The conditions for significant progress on a range of strategic issues dear to South Korea remain in place.
President Lee must be regarded as one of the most fortunate Korean chief executives elected in recent years, since the intractable obstacles to progress that frustrated and confounded his three predecessors are largely absent.
His predecessor left a reservoir of precious and hard-won good will between the North and South, which since late 2006 could be used to buttress the U.S. effort to reengage the North in practical deals leading to greater security.
President Lee also benefits from the perception that the fault for much of the U.S.-South Korean friction over North Korea of the past seven years was Roh Moo-hyun, and that a new administration more comfortable for President Bush would make policy toward the North more effective.
US Administration More Flexible
From the Korean viewpoint, the U.S. administration is in more agreeable posture than at any time since 2001.
The damage from U.S. policy changes toward both Koreas in 2001 was deep, and had a profound effect on Korean politics.
President Bush's now limited window of opportunity to make progress on North Korea and the evaporation of alternatives to aggressive engagement have resulted in a flexibility of U.S. diplomacy that should be welcome and useful to President Lee.
North Korea Still Committed to Disarm
North Korea's investment in potentially transformative commitments has increased during the past 18 months.
The two six-party agreements of September 2005 and February 2007, and the inter-Korean summit of October 2007 all reflect a consistent desire by the Kim Jong-il regime for exchanges that will benefit the North Korea, South Korean and U.S. interests.
Despite the logic of a North Korean delay until the next U.S. President is in office, modest but important progress could probably still be made.
New Democratic Leaders Eager to Help Korea
President Lee now joins a group of democratic leaders, many of whom would like to be more useful in the denuclearization of the peninsula and realization of a Northeast Asian development renaissance, which could provide a far broader base of support for Korea's regional vision.
These include British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and current Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.
Qualities common to this group include an increase in modern, multilateral and practical approaches to regional and global problems, compared to their predecessors.
Add to this the change from coercion to ``provisional engagement'' by President Bush, and the expected flexibility of the next U.S. administration, and President Lee appears blessed with solid and powerful partners for his most ambitious efforts.
Skillful Leadership Would Be Welcome
The economic/security environment in Northeast Asia has suffered seriously during the past decade from multiple failures of leadership, political skills and vision by members of the six-party process.
If a leader steps forward who can get things done while at the same time driving for consensus and forming coalitions, then perhaps we can avoid the prospect of a ``lost five years'' under the Lee Myung-bak administration.
If the down-to-the wire negotiations this week over South Korea's imports of U.S. beef and ratification of the KORUS FTA are an indication that this administration has an appreciation for the uses of political drama, then that may be a good sign, as long as the goals and priorities are carefully respected in the end and the two deals are made.
In that event, the President will leave Washington with the winds of good will and diplomatic/economic progress at his back. Then he can get to work forming a new ``coalition of the modern and practical'' among the groups making up the next four-year National Assembly.
Pragmatic and Strategic Road Map Essential for Progress
Assuming President Lee returns to Seoul with successful agreements in hand, he would be well served by re-launching his foreign and security strategy.
After all, the National Assembly elections are over, he will not face election again, and he has five years to show results.
Every new President finds the view from the Blue House different from the view from his campaign headquarters.
The same holds true in Washington. Better to acknowledge the differences than to insist that you saw all your challenges and opportunities clearly beforehand.
The rhetoric ― and more importantly the mind-set ― of a ``lost 10 years'' is poisonous and divisive. It is also inaccurate in a way that brings the new administration's claims of pragmatism into question.
The changes in Korea and in the regional and international environments have been great since the President's Grand National Party last held power.
Only by digesting objectively the many lessons from the past decade of the Sunshine approach can the new Korean government minimize internal divisions, cooperate with the current and next U.S. administrations, and achieve real measurable progress in regional peace, security and development.
The writer is president of ProGlobal Inc., a consulting firm specializing in East Asia, U.S. foreign policy, and nuclear nonproliferation. ― ED.