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Where is South Korea?

By Choi Sung-jin

As far as the Korean Peninsula issues, including the North’s nuclear crisis, are concerned, the U.S.-China summit over the weekend seems to have produced disappointingly little results.

The situations here have remained unchanged, or rather aggravated, from before the first meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping.

Washington has redirected its aircraft carrier-led strike force toward this peninsula for the second time in less than a month. The move appears to aim at warning Pyongyang against possible provocations and urging Beijing to dissuade its troublesome ally from making any further reckless acts. In response, China is telling the U.S. to refrain from activities that raise tension unnecessarily in this part of the world.

There were not without some subtle changes in the U.S. attitude, though. In his interview with the CBS Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted at the possibility of dialogue with the North on condition that Pyongyang “suspends all tests,” including missile launches.

That marked progress from Tillerson’s visits to Korea, China and Japan last month when he ruled out any chances of resuming talks with North Korea unless the latter begins the denuclearizing process. The top U.S. diplomat’s remark, however, has its limitation in that it effectively called for China to put pressure on the recalcitrant regime.

To sum up, the G2 still keeps passing the buck to each other.

Agonizingly absent through all this process is South Korea and its rudderless government since ousted former President Park Geun-hye was embroiled in corruption and influence-peddling scandal about half a year ago. While the South is mired in the aftermath of presidential impeachment and the upcoming election, the fate of 50 million South Koreans has come under the thumbs of two impulsive and unpredictable leaders – Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. “Korea passing” is on the lips of every political commentator.

In many ways, though, the situation might have been little different had Park remained in office and merely followed the hardline U.S. stance. Washington has overestimated China’s influence on North Korea, either knowingly or not. If Beijing stops oil and food supplies, the North may crumble creating chaotic situations in northeast China ― or exasperate Pyongyang might even fire a missile to the west, not east. Tillerson and other U.S. officials were right ― all attempts to denuclearize North Korea have failed – but the communist regime is like a hedgehog which huddles itself up harder as external pressure intensifies. The more the U.S. attempts to unarm North Korea, the stickier Pyongyang’s adherence to its nuclear arsenal.

The best, maybe the only, way Washington can solve the problem is through a bold deal ― in which its incumbent president is reportedly an expert ― between Pyongyang’s dropping its nuclear ambition and Washington’s diplomatic recognition, signing of peace treaty and lifting of economic embargoes. That is the last remaining path the U.S. has not taken in earnest. Keeping Washington from applying this win-win formula – the U.S. can preempt business opportunities in the North as it did in Myanmar and Vietnam although the price will be a little higher in nuclear-armed North Korea – is the ego of a superpower and the interests of its military-industry complex.

The coming 30 days or so are crucial for 80 million Koreans.

April provides three ominous anniversaries for North Korea – the fifth anniversary of Kim Jong-un taking office, the 105th birthday of North Korea’s founding president Kim Il-sung, and the 85th anniversary of the foundation of the North Korean army. If Pyongyang conducts its sixth nuclear test or launches a long-range rocket to celebrate these days, the tension between Koreas will reach an uncontrollable level. A momentary misjudgment or misunderstanding of the other’s intention could lead to an all-out war costing at least hundreds of thousands of lives.

South Korea should conduct diplomacy – overtly and covertly – to prevent the slightest opportunity of such disasters. It is a fatal dereliction of duty in this regard that the administration of acting-President Hwang Kyo-an is doing nothing. Seoul should warn Pyongyang to refrain from further provocations and tell Washington not to make any unilateral military moves unless U.S. troops and citizens in this part of the world are in danger – at least until South Koreans elect a new leader on May 9.

It would be better still if all presidential candidates voice the same message, either separately or in unison.

And the next South Korean president should be the one who will and can take the initiative in dissolving the nuclear crisis and a decade-long stalemate in the inter-Korean relationship. He or she should be able to use both carrot and stick – or hammer and steak in its enhanced version – to bring Pyongyang back to the dialogue table as well as maintain an airtight alliance with Washington while not estranging Beijing.

Seoul can ill afford to remain as a pawn in regional chessboard between G2. No single leader and his or her administration alone can conduct such bold and shrewd diplomacy without bipartisan and national support.

Making North Korea what it is today were pseudo-hawks of the two conservative governments who loudly disgorged confrontational rhetoric but offered no plausible visions for the peaceful reunification of the divided nation.

That is the biggest point voters ought to remember in the run-up to the crucial elections.

Choi Sung-jin is a contributing op-ed writer for The Korea Times. Contact him at choisj1955@naver.com.


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