Commentary Magazine


Topic: Lee Myung

Justice, Prudence, and North Korea

Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s tough-as-nails president, is in an uncomfortable position as it looks more and more like North Korea is to blame for the sinking of one of its ships, and Barack Obama’s softie stance toward tyrannical regimes isn’t helping.

Christian Whiton writes in today’s Wall Street Journal:

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s reluctance to blame North Korea for sinking the corvette ROKS Cheonan on March 26 reflects his political quandary. The center-right government finds itself potentially warred upon by its belligerent neighbor to the north, with little backup from an indifferent population and its American ally. The greater danger is not an immediate war, but an even stronger signal to Pyongyang and the region’s other belligerents that force can be applied without consequence.

The likelihood that North Korea is to blame for the attack increased dramatically in recent days. On Sunday, South Korea’s defense minister blamed the ship’s demise on a torpedo. While he stopped short of fingering North Korea directly, this seemed to rule out hope that the deaths of at least 40 sailors was something other than an intentional act of war. This is far more serious than the usual affrays North Korea is known to instigate.

Mr. Lee has a history of taking a hard line with North Korea, but in this instance, his options are limited.

In just-war theory, there are two criteria that must be considered by any head of state who contemplates how to counter an aggressor. First, he must decide whether military action is justified. If, in fact, Kim Jong-il’s army did deliberately sink the South Korean ship, then that would constitute an attack — a valid justification for South Korean retaliation.

Mr. Lee’s hesitation, then, has more to do with the second criterion: whether retaliation is prudent, regardless of whether or not it is justified. In this, Mr. Lee is at a disadvantage. As noted earlier, because North Korea was allowed to attain nuclear status, Seoul and its allies must tread with caution.

But Mr. Lee’s tough stance is further undermined by Obama’s consistently soft foreign policy and by his trend of pandering to enemies instead of our allies. South Korea can hardly be confident of Washington’s support, regardless of how justified its cause may be. So Mr. Lee can’t be blamed for wondering whether singlehandedly staring down a nuclear-armed, irrational aggressor is really the prudent course for South Korea to take.

However, as Mr. Whiton suggests, the biggest risk isn’t an all-out war with North Korea. At stake is Mr. Lee’s plausibility — but also the plausibility of any nation that claims it will not tolerate an unprovoked attack on a peaceful country. North Korea will almost certainly take the absence of the threat of deterrence as further encouragement to behave badly.

So what to do? Whiton writes:

The alternative need not necessarily be a military strike against North Korea in retaliation, but a realigned security strategy that reacts to the threats posed by Pyongyang. A start could be a naval and aviation show of force that goes right up to North Korea’s territory and reasserts freedom of navigation throughout the region.

But Obama has issued only vague “support and condolences” and an offer for the U.S. Navy’s “assistance to South Korea’s ongoing search and recovery effort.”

It has been said often that Obama’s foreign policy emboldens international troublemakers. But to go a step further, one of the gravest consequences of Obama’s appeasement strategy has been to make it strategically imprudent for a country to justly act in defense of its citizens.

Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s tough-as-nails president, is in an uncomfortable position as it looks more and more like North Korea is to blame for the sinking of one of its ships, and Barack Obama’s softie stance toward tyrannical regimes isn’t helping.

Christian Whiton writes in today’s Wall Street Journal:

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s reluctance to blame North Korea for sinking the corvette ROKS Cheonan on March 26 reflects his political quandary. The center-right government finds itself potentially warred upon by its belligerent neighbor to the north, with little backup from an indifferent population and its American ally. The greater danger is not an immediate war, but an even stronger signal to Pyongyang and the region’s other belligerents that force can be applied without consequence.

The likelihood that North Korea is to blame for the attack increased dramatically in recent days. On Sunday, South Korea’s defense minister blamed the ship’s demise on a torpedo. While he stopped short of fingering North Korea directly, this seemed to rule out hope that the deaths of at least 40 sailors was something other than an intentional act of war. This is far more serious than the usual affrays North Korea is known to instigate.

Mr. Lee has a history of taking a hard line with North Korea, but in this instance, his options are limited.

In just-war theory, there are two criteria that must be considered by any head of state who contemplates how to counter an aggressor. First, he must decide whether military action is justified. If, in fact, Kim Jong-il’s army did deliberately sink the South Korean ship, then that would constitute an attack — a valid justification for South Korean retaliation.

Mr. Lee’s hesitation, then, has more to do with the second criterion: whether retaliation is prudent, regardless of whether or not it is justified. In this, Mr. Lee is at a disadvantage. As noted earlier, because North Korea was allowed to attain nuclear status, Seoul and its allies must tread with caution.

But Mr. Lee’s tough stance is further undermined by Obama’s consistently soft foreign policy and by his trend of pandering to enemies instead of our allies. South Korea can hardly be confident of Washington’s support, regardless of how justified its cause may be. So Mr. Lee can’t be blamed for wondering whether singlehandedly staring down a nuclear-armed, irrational aggressor is really the prudent course for South Korea to take.

However, as Mr. Whiton suggests, the biggest risk isn’t an all-out war with North Korea. At stake is Mr. Lee’s plausibility — but also the plausibility of any nation that claims it will not tolerate an unprovoked attack on a peaceful country. North Korea will almost certainly take the absence of the threat of deterrence as further encouragement to behave badly.

So what to do? Whiton writes:

The alternative need not necessarily be a military strike against North Korea in retaliation, but a realigned security strategy that reacts to the threats posed by Pyongyang. A start could be a naval and aviation show of force that goes right up to North Korea’s territory and reasserts freedom of navigation throughout the region.

But Obama has issued only vague “support and condolences” and an offer for the U.S. Navy’s “assistance to South Korea’s ongoing search and recovery effort.”

It has been said often that Obama’s foreign policy emboldens international troublemakers. But to go a step further, one of the gravest consequences of Obama’s appeasement strategy has been to make it strategically imprudent for a country to justly act in defense of its citizens.

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Another Ally, Another Snub

It really doesn’t pay to be an ally of the U.S. these days. That status confers on a nation’s leaders the opportunity to be publicly berated and to see prior agreements evaporate (e.g., the Bush-Sharon settlement deal, the missile-defense arrangement with Eastern Europe). And when it comes to our allies’ security and economic needs, Obama nearly always has some higher priority. A case in point (another one) is South Korea. Fred Hiatt writes:

In a world of dangerously failed states and willful challengers to American leadership, South Korea is an astoundingly successful democracy that wants to be friends. But will America say yes? That seemed to be the question perplexing President Lee Myung-bak when I interviewed him here last Wednesday, though he described relations at the moment as excellent. …  The two nations have signed a free-trade agreement that Lee believes would — in addition to bringing obvious economic benefit to both sides — seal a crucial alliance and promote stability throughout Northeast Asia. But President Obama has yet to submit the agreement to Congress for ratification or say when he might do so…

Obama has expressed general support for increasing trade with South Korea but hasn’t committed to the pact that he and Lee inherited from their predecessors. Every analysis shows it would benefit most American consumers and industries, but it faces opposition from Ford Motor, some union leaders and some Democrats in Congress.

Unlike Bill Clinton, who took on his party’s special-interest groups, Obama has shown little stomach for standing up to Big Labor. Whether it’s a sweetheart deal on the health-care excise tax, an SEIU lawyer on the National Labor Relations Board, or a free-trade deal plainly in the interest of both the U.S. and a key ally, Obama is not one to tell the labor bosses no.

And so another ally gets the back of the hand. For a group that promised to “restore our standing in the world,” the Obami are going to be hard-pressed to show how it is we do that when their foreign policy consists of systematically stiffing our democratic friends around the world.

It really doesn’t pay to be an ally of the U.S. these days. That status confers on a nation’s leaders the opportunity to be publicly berated and to see prior agreements evaporate (e.g., the Bush-Sharon settlement deal, the missile-defense arrangement with Eastern Europe). And when it comes to our allies’ security and economic needs, Obama nearly always has some higher priority. A case in point (another one) is South Korea. Fred Hiatt writes:

In a world of dangerously failed states and willful challengers to American leadership, South Korea is an astoundingly successful democracy that wants to be friends. But will America say yes? That seemed to be the question perplexing President Lee Myung-bak when I interviewed him here last Wednesday, though he described relations at the moment as excellent. …  The two nations have signed a free-trade agreement that Lee believes would — in addition to bringing obvious economic benefit to both sides — seal a crucial alliance and promote stability throughout Northeast Asia. But President Obama has yet to submit the agreement to Congress for ratification or say when he might do so…

Obama has expressed general support for increasing trade with South Korea but hasn’t committed to the pact that he and Lee inherited from their predecessors. Every analysis shows it would benefit most American consumers and industries, but it faces opposition from Ford Motor, some union leaders and some Democrats in Congress.

Unlike Bill Clinton, who took on his party’s special-interest groups, Obama has shown little stomach for standing up to Big Labor. Whether it’s a sweetheart deal on the health-care excise tax, an SEIU lawyer on the National Labor Relations Board, or a free-trade deal plainly in the interest of both the U.S. and a key ally, Obama is not one to tell the labor bosses no.

And so another ally gets the back of the hand. For a group that promised to “restore our standing in the world,” the Obami are going to be hard-pressed to show how it is we do that when their foreign policy consists of systematically stiffing our democratic friends around the world.

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Sundown in Seoul?

It hasn’t received much attention yet, but new South Korean president Lee Myung-bak has thrown some cold water on the “sunshine policy” of his predecessors. This policy, arguing for peaceful co-operation with the north, really amounted to subsidizing North Korea in the hope of averting its collapse. (Never mind the untold suffering inflicted by Kim Jong-Il on his subjects.)

Lee is making further aid conditional on North Korea’s willingness to give up its nuclear program and to improve human rights. This has brought a predictable hissy-fit from Pyongyang. As this New York Times article notes, the North is calling Lee a “traitor” and a “U.S. sycophant” and warning: “The Lee regime will be held fully accountable for the irrevocable catastrophic consequences to be entailed.”

Lee should take it as a badge of honor that he is on the receiving end of name-calling from the vilest ruler on the planet. His predecessors have nothing to be proud of, considering that, as the Times puts it, this “outburst was the first time in eight years the North had insulted a South Korean president.” The only way to affect substantial change in the North—if such change is possible at all—is to end the subsidies that have underpinned the regime. Those come primarily from China and South Korea. Beijing has shown no willingness so far to change its support for a fellow communist dictatorship, but the change from Seoul could be significant. It is more likely to bear fruit than the nuclear accord negotiated by the Bush administration, which the North has so far refused to implement.

It hasn’t received much attention yet, but new South Korean president Lee Myung-bak has thrown some cold water on the “sunshine policy” of his predecessors. This policy, arguing for peaceful co-operation with the north, really amounted to subsidizing North Korea in the hope of averting its collapse. (Never mind the untold suffering inflicted by Kim Jong-Il on his subjects.)

Lee is making further aid conditional on North Korea’s willingness to give up its nuclear program and to improve human rights. This has brought a predictable hissy-fit from Pyongyang. As this New York Times article notes, the North is calling Lee a “traitor” and a “U.S. sycophant” and warning: “The Lee regime will be held fully accountable for the irrevocable catastrophic consequences to be entailed.”

Lee should take it as a badge of honor that he is on the receiving end of name-calling from the vilest ruler on the planet. His predecessors have nothing to be proud of, considering that, as the Times puts it, this “outburst was the first time in eight years the North had insulted a South Korean president.” The only way to affect substantial change in the North—if such change is possible at all—is to end the subsidies that have underpinned the regime. Those come primarily from China and South Korea. Beijing has shown no willingness so far to change its support for a fellow communist dictatorship, but the change from Seoul could be significant. It is more likely to bear fruit than the nuclear accord negotiated by the Bush administration, which the North has so far refused to implement.

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“Everything Will Be in Ashes”

Today, Pyongyang threatened to destroy archrival South Korea. “Everything will be in ashes, not just a sea of fire, once our advanced pre-emptive strike begins,” promised an unidentified North Korean military analyst. The remarks, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, cap days of escalating tension on the peninsula. Yesterday, the North threatened to cut off all dialogue between the two states. Pyongyang pinned the blame for its bellicose words on recent comments by Kim Tae Young, the new chairman of the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Wednesday, Kim said that his forces were ready to attack suspected North Korean nuclear sites if it appeared that Pyongyang was about to use atomic weapons against the South.

The exchange of nasty words about nuclear war comes amid a general breakdown in relations between the two Koreas. Last Thursday, Seoul withdrew all its officials from the Kaesong industrial park, just north of the Demilitarized Zone. Pyongyang demanded the withdrawal after the new South Korean government said that it would not expand the zone, created to attract South Korean manufacturers, until the North honored its promises to give up its nuclear weapons. On Friday, Pyongyang tested ship-to-ship missiles in what was characterized as a display of anger.

South Korea’s new president, Lee Myung-bak, has taken a noticeably tougher line than either of his two predecessors, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. The North’s propaganda machine had mostly held off criticizing the South Korean president until last week. Now it appears that Pyongyang will try to undermine Lee by a new round of belligerent conduct and words.

Deteriorating relations on the Korean peninsula are bound to finally scuttle the Bush administration’s efforts to salvage the so-called six-party process. The North is months late on honoring its agreement to make a complete declaration of its nuclear programs, and even before last week there was little prospect that Pyongyang would reverse course and comply.

Despite its promises, the regime in Pyongyang has yet to make the critical decision to give up its atomic arsenal. We will not know for some time whether Kim Jong Il is holding out for a better deal from a new administration in Washington, as some contend, or whether, more probably, he has been unable to obtain the cooperation of his military to disarm. In any event, it is time for President Bush to acknowledge that his Korean policy is being overtaken by events in Korea. His counterpart in Seoul already knows there can be no progress until governments are willing to hold the enigmatic Kim to his promises. The time for American patience with the dangerous autocrat in Pyongyang is now over.

Today, Pyongyang threatened to destroy archrival South Korea. “Everything will be in ashes, not just a sea of fire, once our advanced pre-emptive strike begins,” promised an unidentified North Korean military analyst. The remarks, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, cap days of escalating tension on the peninsula. Yesterday, the North threatened to cut off all dialogue between the two states. Pyongyang pinned the blame for its bellicose words on recent comments by Kim Tae Young, the new chairman of the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Wednesday, Kim said that his forces were ready to attack suspected North Korean nuclear sites if it appeared that Pyongyang was about to use atomic weapons against the South.

The exchange of nasty words about nuclear war comes amid a general breakdown in relations between the two Koreas. Last Thursday, Seoul withdrew all its officials from the Kaesong industrial park, just north of the Demilitarized Zone. Pyongyang demanded the withdrawal after the new South Korean government said that it would not expand the zone, created to attract South Korean manufacturers, until the North honored its promises to give up its nuclear weapons. On Friday, Pyongyang tested ship-to-ship missiles in what was characterized as a display of anger.

South Korea’s new president, Lee Myung-bak, has taken a noticeably tougher line than either of his two predecessors, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. The North’s propaganda machine had mostly held off criticizing the South Korean president until last week. Now it appears that Pyongyang will try to undermine Lee by a new round of belligerent conduct and words.

Deteriorating relations on the Korean peninsula are bound to finally scuttle the Bush administration’s efforts to salvage the so-called six-party process. The North is months late on honoring its agreement to make a complete declaration of its nuclear programs, and even before last week there was little prospect that Pyongyang would reverse course and comply.

Despite its promises, the regime in Pyongyang has yet to make the critical decision to give up its atomic arsenal. We will not know for some time whether Kim Jong Il is holding out for a better deal from a new administration in Washington, as some contend, or whether, more probably, he has been unable to obtain the cooperation of his military to disarm. In any event, it is time for President Bush to acknowledge that his Korean policy is being overtaken by events in Korea. His counterpart in Seoul already knows there can be no progress until governments are willing to hold the enigmatic Kim to his promises. The time for American patience with the dangerous autocrat in Pyongyang is now over.

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Vulnerable North Korea

“There’s a growing understanding of the issues that need to be resolved,” said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill after meeting with his North Korean counterpart in Geneva late last week. Washington’s chief negotiator at the six-party talks was doing his best to show progress in the inconclusive negotiations to disarm Kim Jong Il’s abhorrent state. To date, Pyongyang has shown little inclination to provide a full accounting of its nuclear weapons programs in compliance with a prior agreement to do so by the end of last year.

A weakened Bush administration appears to be at a loss as to what to do in the face of the North’s recent intransigence. In the first week of this month, Hill imposed a March-end deadline on Pyongyang to honor its commitments, but it is apparent that the announced due date is meaningless and that the United States will impose no penalty for a failure to meet his timeline.

Diplomacy may require patience, but it certainly works best with the threat of coercion, especially where rogues armed with dangerous weapons are involved. Analysts say there is no military option against North Korea. Even if this notion is correct—which it is not—the tolerance of the President is a fundamental mistake. Events over the past several weeks show that Washington is not playing its strongest cards at an important moment.

An unseasonably warm and dry winter is adversely affecting the North’s autumn crop of wheat and barley. This abnormal weather comes on top of last August’s devastating floods. As a result, the UN’s World Food Program expects a larger-than-usual shortfall in North Korea’ harvest. Surging grain prices on global markets do not help Kim Jong Il. Moreover, both China and South Korea have substantially reduced shipments of food and fertilizer to the North Korean regime. “For Kim Jong Il, this will be his most difficult year,” says Park Syung-je of the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul.

The key is the new South Korean government. President Lee Myung-bak has announced that Seoul’s aid will be closely tied to Pyongyang’s adherence to its pledges of disarmament. Moreover, Lee, who travels to Washington in the middle of April, wants to align his North Korean polices with Washington’s. This means that the South will largely abandon the approaches of his predecessors, namely the Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae Jung and the nearly identical Peace and Prosperity Policy of Roh Moo-hyun. Seoul’s new approach isolates China and makes it the sole supporter of North Korea. This permits the United States to put Beijing on the spot.

So the Bush administration has new tools to coerce Pyongyang and, more importantly, Beijing. The main issue, therefore, is whether Washington has the will to use them.

“There’s a growing understanding of the issues that need to be resolved,” said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill after meeting with his North Korean counterpart in Geneva late last week. Washington’s chief negotiator at the six-party talks was doing his best to show progress in the inconclusive negotiations to disarm Kim Jong Il’s abhorrent state. To date, Pyongyang has shown little inclination to provide a full accounting of its nuclear weapons programs in compliance with a prior agreement to do so by the end of last year.

A weakened Bush administration appears to be at a loss as to what to do in the face of the North’s recent intransigence. In the first week of this month, Hill imposed a March-end deadline on Pyongyang to honor its commitments, but it is apparent that the announced due date is meaningless and that the United States will impose no penalty for a failure to meet his timeline.

Diplomacy may require patience, but it certainly works best with the threat of coercion, especially where rogues armed with dangerous weapons are involved. Analysts say there is no military option against North Korea. Even if this notion is correct—which it is not—the tolerance of the President is a fundamental mistake. Events over the past several weeks show that Washington is not playing its strongest cards at an important moment.

An unseasonably warm and dry winter is adversely affecting the North’s autumn crop of wheat and barley. This abnormal weather comes on top of last August’s devastating floods. As a result, the UN’s World Food Program expects a larger-than-usual shortfall in North Korea’ harvest. Surging grain prices on global markets do not help Kim Jong Il. Moreover, both China and South Korea have substantially reduced shipments of food and fertilizer to the North Korean regime. “For Kim Jong Il, this will be his most difficult year,” says Park Syung-je of the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul.

The key is the new South Korean government. President Lee Myung-bak has announced that Seoul’s aid will be closely tied to Pyongyang’s adherence to its pledges of disarmament. Moreover, Lee, who travels to Washington in the middle of April, wants to align his North Korean polices with Washington’s. This means that the South will largely abandon the approaches of his predecessors, namely the Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae Jung and the nearly identical Peace and Prosperity Policy of Roh Moo-hyun. Seoul’s new approach isolates China and makes it the sole supporter of North Korea. This permits the United States to put Beijing on the spot.

So the Bush administration has new tools to coerce Pyongyang and, more importantly, Beijing. The main issue, therefore, is whether Washington has the will to use them.

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Dvorak Diplomacy

Today, the New York Philharmonic arrived in Pyongyang, the cold and barren capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The orchestra will perform a concert tomorrow, and Lorin Maazel, its music director, hopes to make a “tiny contribution” to warming up America’s relations with the world’s most repugnant state. “I am a musician and not a politician, but music has always been an arena or area where people can make contact.”

Contact? The hope in the West is that increased contact, starting with the Phil’s visit, will open up North Korea, the world’s most isolated nation. Many argue that friendly relations will weaken the regime, which has been built on hostility to the United States. “I don’t see why Kim is doing it,” says Andrei Lankov, a longtime observer of the Kimist state. “If I were him, I wouldn’t do it.”

So why did North Korea’s leader invite America’s premier orchestra to play in his capital? The answer may be found in Seoul, the capital of the better version of Korea. South Korea today inaugurated its 17th president, Lee Myung-bak. The conservative Lee looks set to reverse a decade of the Sunshine Policy of his two predecessors, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Lee has already set a new tone in Seoul by signaling that he will condition major assistance to North Korea on adherence to its commitment to give up its atomic bombs. Since the beginning of this year Pyongyang has failed to provide a promised declaration of its nuclear weapons programs, and, as a result, the international community has slowed aid deliveries.

There are signs that the North is headed toward another economic downturn, so Kim Jong Il is undoubtedly looking for new sources of assistance. The North Korean government has stockpiled at least six months’ worth of fuel and other supplies, so it can last through the year. Although it’s unlikely that Beijing would let the regime fall, Kim does not either trust or like the Chinese and would prefer to find other sources of support, especially because multiple benefactors would allow him to play one off against the others, as his father so skillfully did during the Cold War.

The risk is that the United States will fall for the euphoria surrounding the New York Phil’s visit, which has the blessing of the Bush administration. “I don’t think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea,” said Condoleezza Rice, who attended Lee’s inauguration. I agree, but her recent Korean policy has been marked by unimaginative strategy, humiliating moments, and unseemly compromises. Kim is a grandmaster of tactics, and if there will be any victim of “Dvorak Diplomacy,” it may be us, not him.

Today, the New York Philharmonic arrived in Pyongyang, the cold and barren capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The orchestra will perform a concert tomorrow, and Lorin Maazel, its music director, hopes to make a “tiny contribution” to warming up America’s relations with the world’s most repugnant state. “I am a musician and not a politician, but music has always been an arena or area where people can make contact.”

Contact? The hope in the West is that increased contact, starting with the Phil’s visit, will open up North Korea, the world’s most isolated nation. Many argue that friendly relations will weaken the regime, which has been built on hostility to the United States. “I don’t see why Kim is doing it,” says Andrei Lankov, a longtime observer of the Kimist state. “If I were him, I wouldn’t do it.”

So why did North Korea’s leader invite America’s premier orchestra to play in his capital? The answer may be found in Seoul, the capital of the better version of Korea. South Korea today inaugurated its 17th president, Lee Myung-bak. The conservative Lee looks set to reverse a decade of the Sunshine Policy of his two predecessors, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Lee has already set a new tone in Seoul by signaling that he will condition major assistance to North Korea on adherence to its commitment to give up its atomic bombs. Since the beginning of this year Pyongyang has failed to provide a promised declaration of its nuclear weapons programs, and, as a result, the international community has slowed aid deliveries.

There are signs that the North is headed toward another economic downturn, so Kim Jong Il is undoubtedly looking for new sources of assistance. The North Korean government has stockpiled at least six months’ worth of fuel and other supplies, so it can last through the year. Although it’s unlikely that Beijing would let the regime fall, Kim does not either trust or like the Chinese and would prefer to find other sources of support, especially because multiple benefactors would allow him to play one off against the others, as his father so skillfully did during the Cold War.

The risk is that the United States will fall for the euphoria surrounding the New York Phil’s visit, which has the blessing of the Bush administration. “I don’t think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea,” said Condoleezza Rice, who attended Lee’s inauguration. I agree, but her recent Korean policy has been marked by unimaginative strategy, humiliating moments, and unseemly compromises. Kim is a grandmaster of tactics, and if there will be any victim of “Dvorak Diplomacy,” it may be us, not him.

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China Proposes a Three-Way Forum

Yesterday, Nikkei, the Japanese business news organization, reported that Beijing had proposed that China, Japan, and the United States hold regular high-level talks on matters of common interest, such as North Korea.  Is this a good idea?

We start with the general proposition that, given Beijing’s worldview, anything the Chinese propose cannot be advantageous for either the Japanese or us.  As an initial matter, the establishment of a permanent structure including the Chinese enhances their role in Asia.

The Bush administration has done much to bolster Beijing’s diplomacy by putting China at the center of multilateral attempts to disarm North Korea.  The Chinese used the six-party talks to promote dialogue but not a solution.  As a result, they have given the North Koreans the time to build nuclear devices and improve their long-range missiles.  When there has been progress in this forum—started in 2003—it has almost always been because American diplomats have informally sat down with their North Korean counterparts without the Chinese present.  China supplies 90 percent of the North’s oil, 80 percent of its consumer goods, and 45 percent of its food.  They are each other’s only military ally.  No other nation provides more diplomatic support to Pyongyang.  The Chinese cannot obtain the North Koreans’ cooperation or they do not want to.  Either conclusion shows that China is not a helpful diplomatic partner.  Consequently, it would be unwise to repeat our strategic mistakes by giving Beijing more clout than it deserves.

Moreover, the establishment of China’s three-way forum would exclude South Korea, a crucial American ally.  In Asia, the United States has strong alliances with Tokyo and Seoul.  The Japanese and South Koreans, however, have not established good ties between themselves.  South Korea’s outgoing president, Roh Moo-hyun, unfortunately, has stirred up lingering anti-Japanese resentment in an apparent attempt to strengthen his failing administration.  Tomorrow’s inauguration of his successor, Lee Myung-bak, will probably result in better ties between his government and Tokyo: earlier this month the pragmatic Lee signaled his desire to repair the damage Roh has caused.  So America should encourage this welcome trend and not accept Beijing’s plan, which can only drive wedges among Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul.  If the Bush administration promotes three-way discussions, it should encourage dialogue involving the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

So let’s stop promoting potential adversaries and start helping our friends.  Isn’t that what diplomacy is all about?

Yesterday, Nikkei, the Japanese business news organization, reported that Beijing had proposed that China, Japan, and the United States hold regular high-level talks on matters of common interest, such as North Korea.  Is this a good idea?

We start with the general proposition that, given Beijing’s worldview, anything the Chinese propose cannot be advantageous for either the Japanese or us.  As an initial matter, the establishment of a permanent structure including the Chinese enhances their role in Asia.

The Bush administration has done much to bolster Beijing’s diplomacy by putting China at the center of multilateral attempts to disarm North Korea.  The Chinese used the six-party talks to promote dialogue but not a solution.  As a result, they have given the North Koreans the time to build nuclear devices and improve their long-range missiles.  When there has been progress in this forum—started in 2003—it has almost always been because American diplomats have informally sat down with their North Korean counterparts without the Chinese present.  China supplies 90 percent of the North’s oil, 80 percent of its consumer goods, and 45 percent of its food.  They are each other’s only military ally.  No other nation provides more diplomatic support to Pyongyang.  The Chinese cannot obtain the North Koreans’ cooperation or they do not want to.  Either conclusion shows that China is not a helpful diplomatic partner.  Consequently, it would be unwise to repeat our strategic mistakes by giving Beijing more clout than it deserves.

Moreover, the establishment of China’s three-way forum would exclude South Korea, a crucial American ally.  In Asia, the United States has strong alliances with Tokyo and Seoul.  The Japanese and South Koreans, however, have not established good ties between themselves.  South Korea’s outgoing president, Roh Moo-hyun, unfortunately, has stirred up lingering anti-Japanese resentment in an apparent attempt to strengthen his failing administration.  Tomorrow’s inauguration of his successor, Lee Myung-bak, will probably result in better ties between his government and Tokyo: earlier this month the pragmatic Lee signaled his desire to repair the damage Roh has caused.  So America should encourage this welcome trend and not accept Beijing’s plan, which can only drive wedges among Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul.  If the Bush administration promotes three-way discussions, it should encourage dialogue involving the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

So let’s stop promoting potential adversaries and start helping our friends.  Isn’t that what diplomacy is all about?

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The Meaning of KAMD

Will South Korea reverse long-standing policy and participate in Washington’s missile defense shield for Asia? Reports this week confirm that on January 8 the Ministry of National Defense briefed the transition team of incoming President Lee Myung-bak on Seoul’s options. It now appears that the new administration is interested in joining the effort.

Up to now, outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun, hoping to build bridges to Pyongyang and Beijing, has shunned missile defense cooperation with the Pentagon. South Korea has taken tentative steps to build what it calls KAMD, the Korean low-altitude air and missile network, but Lee looks like he will accelerate scheduled purchases of equipment and integrate his nation’s system with America’s and Japan’s high-altitude one. For instance, South Korea might provide missile-launch or radar sites, join in research and development, or share costs. As one senior official in South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking anonymously, said, “The bottom line is that we will go in a direction toward developing our low-altitude intercept shield into an extended missile defense system.”

Nonetheless, enhanced cooperation with Washington will proceed cautiously due to several factors. First, despite Lee’s landslide win over the so-called “progressive” forces last month, South Korea’s electorate remains almost evenly divided. Any move to sign up for Washington’s missile defense network will undoubtedly cause an uproar in a highly partisan electorate. Moreover, few South Koreans want to go out of their way to upset the Chinese, who are dead set against America’s missile shield plans. Although the defensive system is meant to counter North Korea, Beijing correctly views such plans as a threat to its offensive capabilities as well. And there is also the issue of cost.

Yet active consideration of missile defense in Seoul is an indication of a change in the country’s mood. South Korea is beginning to align its policies with America’s because there is an underlying sense that the North Korea-friendly Sunshine Policy of President Roh and his predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, is not working.

The larger point is that, as the pendulum swings back, South Korea is moving closer to the United States and American influence in North Asia is growing. Washington does not need to recognize Chinese ascendance there, as Jason Shaplen and James Laney, writing in Foreign Affairs at the end of last year, seem to think. In short, North Korea’s refusal to give up its nuclear weapons—evidenced by Pyongyang’s failure to meet its year-end obligations—is alienating Seoul and causing more heartburn for Beijing than Washington. After a few difficult years, the initiative is now with the democracies of North Asia, not China.

Will South Korea reverse long-standing policy and participate in Washington’s missile defense shield for Asia? Reports this week confirm that on January 8 the Ministry of National Defense briefed the transition team of incoming President Lee Myung-bak on Seoul’s options. It now appears that the new administration is interested in joining the effort.

Up to now, outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun, hoping to build bridges to Pyongyang and Beijing, has shunned missile defense cooperation with the Pentagon. South Korea has taken tentative steps to build what it calls KAMD, the Korean low-altitude air and missile network, but Lee looks like he will accelerate scheduled purchases of equipment and integrate his nation’s system with America’s and Japan’s high-altitude one. For instance, South Korea might provide missile-launch or radar sites, join in research and development, or share costs. As one senior official in South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking anonymously, said, “The bottom line is that we will go in a direction toward developing our low-altitude intercept shield into an extended missile defense system.”

Nonetheless, enhanced cooperation with Washington will proceed cautiously due to several factors. First, despite Lee’s landslide win over the so-called “progressive” forces last month, South Korea’s electorate remains almost evenly divided. Any move to sign up for Washington’s missile defense network will undoubtedly cause an uproar in a highly partisan electorate. Moreover, few South Koreans want to go out of their way to upset the Chinese, who are dead set against America’s missile shield plans. Although the defensive system is meant to counter North Korea, Beijing correctly views such plans as a threat to its offensive capabilities as well. And there is also the issue of cost.

Yet active consideration of missile defense in Seoul is an indication of a change in the country’s mood. South Korea is beginning to align its policies with America’s because there is an underlying sense that the North Korea-friendly Sunshine Policy of President Roh and his predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, is not working.

The larger point is that, as the pendulum swings back, South Korea is moving closer to the United States and American influence in North Asia is growing. Washington does not need to recognize Chinese ascendance there, as Jason Shaplen and James Laney, writing in Foreign Affairs at the end of last year, seem to think. In short, North Korea’s refusal to give up its nuclear weapons—evidenced by Pyongyang’s failure to meet its year-end obligations—is alienating Seoul and causing more heartburn for Beijing than Washington. After a few difficult years, the initiative is now with the democracies of North Asia, not China.

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Myung-Bak Wins

As expected, former Seoul mayor and Hyundai executive Lee Myung-bak seems handily to have won yesterday’s South Korean presidential election. Exit polls have him at between 40 and 50 percent of the three-man race. This is good news for South Korea, Asia, and the United States. Lee is not only an experienced businessman and politician, he is likely to bring a more realistic approach to Korean affairs, warm up relations with the U.S., and perhaps even take South Korea onto new paths of international involvement. For now, Lee has promised a “747” strategy: achieve 7 percent annual growth, increase South Korea’s per capita income to US$40,000, and put the country in the top 7 nations worldwide in terms of GDP.

Especially audacious is Lee’s income doubling plan (currently South Korea’s per capita income is around US$20,000), and it harks to former Japanese Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato’s income doubling policy of the 1960’s, which put Japan on the road to economic superpower status. With a growing asset bubble around Seoul, corruption in the state and among private enterprises, and rising income inequality, Lee has his work cut out for him. But in bringing clarity to his political platform, he has given South Koreans a road map for moving forward.

Equally importantly, this is the moment for the U.S. to take advantage of having an ally in Seoul. The past decade of rule by presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun has seen a near-collapse in U.S.-South Korean political relations. Both Kim and Roh pursued active engagement with Pyongyang, and most South Koreans saw nothing emerge from the policy except a nuclear North Korea. Lee has indicated that any further engagement with Kim Jong-Il depends on the North’s living up to the promises it has already made. This should give Washington an excuse to re-evaluate its policy of bending every deadline in the Six Party Talks in Pyongyang’s favor. Washington also has a unique chance to rethink the military reform projects put in place over the past several years, and to consider delaying the dissolution of the highly successful Combined Forces Command, a reform opposed by an overwhelming majority of South Korean uniformed officers.

Now is also the time to encourage South Korea to think about a larger role in East Asia, starting with improving relations with Japan, perhaps within a new trilateral arrangement spearheaded by the United States. The Japanese more forthrightly will have to address lingering historical issues to Seoul’s satisfaction, but the two should be natural partners in promoting democracy, free markets, and human rights in Asia. This should become a priority of the Bush administration in its remaining months. Yesterday’s election is a rare piece of good news in a region that needs it desperately.

As expected, former Seoul mayor and Hyundai executive Lee Myung-bak seems handily to have won yesterday’s South Korean presidential election. Exit polls have him at between 40 and 50 percent of the three-man race. This is good news for South Korea, Asia, and the United States. Lee is not only an experienced businessman and politician, he is likely to bring a more realistic approach to Korean affairs, warm up relations with the U.S., and perhaps even take South Korea onto new paths of international involvement. For now, Lee has promised a “747” strategy: achieve 7 percent annual growth, increase South Korea’s per capita income to US$40,000, and put the country in the top 7 nations worldwide in terms of GDP.

Especially audacious is Lee’s income doubling plan (currently South Korea’s per capita income is around US$20,000), and it harks to former Japanese Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato’s income doubling policy of the 1960’s, which put Japan on the road to economic superpower status. With a growing asset bubble around Seoul, corruption in the state and among private enterprises, and rising income inequality, Lee has his work cut out for him. But in bringing clarity to his political platform, he has given South Koreans a road map for moving forward.

Equally importantly, this is the moment for the U.S. to take advantage of having an ally in Seoul. The past decade of rule by presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun has seen a near-collapse in U.S.-South Korean political relations. Both Kim and Roh pursued active engagement with Pyongyang, and most South Koreans saw nothing emerge from the policy except a nuclear North Korea. Lee has indicated that any further engagement with Kim Jong-Il depends on the North’s living up to the promises it has already made. This should give Washington an excuse to re-evaluate its policy of bending every deadline in the Six Party Talks in Pyongyang’s favor. Washington also has a unique chance to rethink the military reform projects put in place over the past several years, and to consider delaying the dissolution of the highly successful Combined Forces Command, a reform opposed by an overwhelming majority of South Korean uniformed officers.

Now is also the time to encourage South Korea to think about a larger role in East Asia, starting with improving relations with Japan, perhaps within a new trilateral arrangement spearheaded by the United States. The Japanese more forthrightly will have to address lingering historical issues to Seoul’s satisfaction, but the two should be natural partners in promoting democracy, free markets, and human rights in Asia. This should become a priority of the Bush administration in its remaining months. Yesterday’s election is a rare piece of good news in a region that needs it desperately.

Read Less




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