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This commentary appears in the December 27, 2002 issue of Executive Intelligence Review.

Challenges Ahead for
Korean Foreign Policy

by Dr. Kim Sang-woo

The article excerpted here first appeared in the Korea Times on Dec. 16, 2002. Dr. Kim is Professor of International Relations at Kyung Hee University; former Ambassador for International and Strategic Affairs, the Republic of Korea; and was spokesman for the Foreign Media Office for President-elect Roh Moo-hyun of the Millennium Democratic Party.

The challenges we face in the field of foreign policy can be described in the three categories of peace, prosperity and maturity. Obviously, the most pressing need is peace, as we keep being baffled by the recurring theme of North Korea's nuclear development and the possibility of U.S. preemptive strikes. Unification is no doubt our ultimate goal; yet peaceful coexistence on the Korean peninsula must be secured first so the pace and cost of unification may stay within a manageable range.

Theoretically, there are three options available to resolve the issue of North Korea's nuclear program. The first is the use of military power. In 1994, the crisis passed before its escalation into war. The U.S. government then made the estimation that in case of a U.S. preemptive strike and subsequent retaliation by North Korea, South Korean casualties, both military and civilian, would amount to 1.5 million and U.S. troops 50,000 at least. With the entirety of South Korea and a substantial part of Japan being in striking range of North Korean missiles, this is one option that should definitely be avoided.

The second option is economic sanctions. This again may well provoke North Korea to go down the path of military conflict by choosing to defy the sanctions and deviate from the so-called Agreed Framework. The end result will be same as the first. However, if well controlled, economic sanctions can indeed suffocate the North Korean regime, and eventually induce its collapse, without affairs being escalated to war. Yet in this case, chaos will mount with millions of refugees pouring down to the South and an astronomical amount of money will be needed just to begin to address the situation. The South will never be in a position to handle its impact alone. Not only will outside assistance become essential, but Koreans also may even have to relinquish our right to manage the fate of the northern half of the peninsula to other powers and international organizations.

That is why we believe the remaining option of engaging with the North with the aim of inducing the regime to make changes in the right direction is the only sensible way. To do this job properly, it is of extreme importance to furnish Pyongyang with the straightforward message: we simply want you to change, not perish; therefore steps toward reform and openness will be duly rewarded with further assistance, but irresponsible actions will be met with penalties. This is a very delicate task requiring strategic astuteness. In sending out such signals to Pyongyang successfully, it is crucial that all the relevant powers cooperate, especially Seoul and Washington.

As we may stand at the brink of another crisis after Pyongyang's announcement that it is reactivating its nuclear power plant, it is high time we checked whether our message to Pyongyang is coordinated and we have offered them a way out to make right decisions.

Despite President Bush's repeated claim that the United States will not attack North Korea and intends to resolve the situation in a peaceful manner, I am afraid I must point out that Washington increasingly appears to be pushing for a regime change in North Korea by attempting to accelerate the collapse of the Kim Jong-il regime. This may serve the U.S. interest as a quick and efficient solution to remove the source of clear and present danger but as stated earlier, it will certainly not serve the national interest of South Korea.

Not only will the untimely collapse of Kim's regime in the North bring havoc to the South Korean economy, but it may also create a serious impingement upon the sovereignty of the nation. With these exigencies in mind the U.S. administration must come to coordinate with Korea's new President-elect as soon as possible. Otherwise, North Korea will keep pursuing political brinksmanship with its nuclear program without knowing the way out and neither Seoul's engagement policy nor Washington's hard-line sanctions will fully achieve their objective. As for the opposition party in Seoul and its supporters, who tend to reverberate the hard-line U.S. rhetoric, I beseech them to come to their senses and think hard about what the national interest of Korea is.

The second category of the foreign policy objective for Korea, in my view, is about prosperity through reinforced emphasis on regional cooperation within East Asia. I believe the future of East Asia belongs together. We must go beyond the conventional notion of regional economic cooperation centered on a free trade area and common currency. With the advent of new technologies, we now have the means to connect each country within the region to high-powered networks. Namely, common infrastructure of the Internet and transportation can indeed substantiate the true meaning of regional unity.

With Korea's leading edge in broadband technology, we can help the whole region of East Asia get connected to cyber-space, ranging from Kamchatka to Mumbai, from Irkutsk down to Bandung and from Pyongyang to Lhasa. This must coincide with the building of transportation infrastructure in physical space. The ongoing construction of the Trans-Korean Railways and their connection to the Trans-Siberian Railways will hopefully have a trigger-effect for further connections to the Chinese mainland and Trans-Asian Railways encompassing ASEAN countries. This combined network in cyber and physical space will not only bring about immense business opportunities and the thriving of physical industries even in remote corners but also tremendously enhance the level of technology for the region....