A Sheep Among Wolves

A top official from the National Security Council on Wednesday threw his weight behind a change in Korea’s geopolitical strategy away from what he called the “Cold War camp diplomacy” in East Asia, pitting a northern alliance of North Korea, China and Russia against the southern alliance of South Korea, the U.S. and Japan.

“In future, Korea will break from the framework of confrontation and switch to open security cooperation,” the official said. “As a dynamic actor, Korea will play a balancing role in Northeast Asia.”

The Chosun Ilbo, March 30, 2005, quoting “a top official from [Korea’s] National Security Council”

How can you tell the difference between a camp diplomacy by any other name and playing a balancing role? Answer: a camp follower is a supplicant who serves one or more masters without appreciably advancing his own interests. A balancer exerts sufficient influence on the policies of other nations to preserve political equilibrium (presupposing this to be a desireable state of affairs). A balancer takes the initiative in responding to crises and in coordinating a regional strategic vision. It identifies attainable objectives in light of a realistic appraisal of its strengths and weaknesses. It makes itself a must-stop focal point of regional diplomacy, a valued ally, and a feared adversary. It pursues its objectives quietly when possible, and publicly only when it doing so serves the totality of the interests of its people. At least, that’s what I think Lee Jong-Seok the “top NSC official” meant.

Granted, we must all play the cards we’re dealt, but does this description sound more like, say, Thailand, Pakistan, or today’s South Korea?

Here are a few grafs. As you read them, ask yourself two questions. First, how much impact does South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun’s administration appear to have on the diplomatic positions of the various countries? Second, how balanced are the differences between Roh’s government and those of other nations of influence?

First graf:

Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon on Tuesday told his Chinese counterpart Li Zhaoxing the two countries must make diplomatic efforts to ensure that North Korea does not launch a missile and returns to six-country talks on its nuclear program. At a meeting in Beijing, Seoul’s chief diplomat urged his hosts to convince North Korea to resolve the matter.

Li said China had already told the North and other involved countries of “its interest” in the missile question. “It’s unacceptable for the issue to be allowed to raise tensions or aggravate the state of affairs,” Li was quoted as saying in comments suggesting China has told North Korea to abandon the missile launch.

Incidentally, I believe the Chinese had already told the North Koreans this, and meant it. I don’t think a launch is in China’s interests. One more:

In remarks apparently aimed at the United States and Japan, Mr. Li also reportedly said Beijing has emphasized the search for a peaceful resolution to other “relevant parties.” He called on Seoul to join Beijing in more efforts at mediation and dialogue.

That last one won’t be a very hard sell. Now, compare those grafs to this one, which deals with Roh’s interaction with his American counterpart:

Song Min-soon, President Roh Moo-hyun’s Blue House security advisor, said yesterday that Mr. Roh will meet U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington in September.

Mr. Song said he would go to Washington early next month to plan the visit with Stephen Hadley, his counterpart in the U.S. government.

The somewhat unusual announcement of the visit even before preparations were well under way was probably related to a growing sense of unease here about strains in the U.S.-Korea alliance, which culminated in editorial charges by the Chosun Ilbo newspaper that the two leaders were no longer talking. The Blue House responded sensitively to those charges two days ago.

Ban jets right into Beijing to display complete harmony with the Chinese view. Both join a call for protagonist and object alike to show restraint, presumably meaning in both the provocation and the defense therefrom. With this threat looming (but perhaps receding), Roh can’t get on W’s calendar until September and is conspicuously absent from his rolodex, if recent reports are to be believed. Nor did South Korea join in today’s U.S. call for North Korea to show us the rocket’s “peaceful” payload.

At least with respect to the actions of the South Korean government, score this round for China.

This does not necessarily mean that South Korea as a whole is drifting into the Motherland’s loving arms. Roh is mortally weakened, there are signs of a backlash and rightward reaction among Korean voters, and even his own party — its Chairman, recently considered a Roh loyalist, no less — is taking shots at Roh’s diplomatic impotence:

Moon Hee-sang, a former party chairman, took Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok to the woodshed Friday at a Unification Committee hearing. He called on the administration to stop provoking Koreans to believe that the Roh administration is “left-wing.” He also stressed the importance of Korea’s military alliance with the United states. “The government should keep reiterating its desire to strengthen the alliance and earn trust,” he said, “but the problem is that Washington doesn’t trust us.”

He also took the minister to task for not protesting strongly against a warning by Ahn Kyong-ho, a leader of a recent delegation from Pyongyang, that the peninsula faced a “fire of war” if conservatives here regain the Blue House.

To be completely fair to Roh, I have little doubt that he’s being thrown overboard for trying to implement the very policies today’s Uri critics advocated yesterday. This attack strikes me as cynical in the extreme. It is also indicative of the utter dissolution of Roh’s political base that I can’t name a single Korean politician of national standing who supports him, other than his own Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and UniFiction Minster. And even this assumes much.

In other words, I don’t read too much from Roh Moo Hyun cozying up to the Chinese. It’s hard to say where South Korea will end up until the 2007 elections, and that further saps Roh’s power in dealing with other nations.

The comparison is an imperfect one, but it calls to mind that in 1994, Kim Young Sam’s opinion carried enough weight in this town that he was able to stop a strike on Yongbyon, at great cost to U.S. interests, just two years after Roh Tae-Woo established diplomatic relations with China. He also began talks with North Korea, though not without the expectation of reciprocity there, too, as Kim Y.S. — crook or not — never forget that North Koreans were also his country’s citizens. This, ladies and gentlemen, is balancing. Does anyone seriously believe that South Korea occupies a place of real influence in regional diplomacy today? That is the consequence of subordinating statecraft to emotion. If you’re a slave of emotion, you’re a slave of everyone who learns to manipulate it.

If William Perry or Newt Gingrich were Secretary of Defense today, who believes that Roh could stop either of them from launching a preemptive strike on North Korea? Here is a case where the Koreans counsel caution. Notwithstanding the wrongness of their reasons, they are right, yet they lack the credibility to be recognized as right.

Contrast this to the wily diplomacy of the North Koreans, the Chinese, and the Japanese. Yesterday, I noted how North Korea’s episode of projectophilia was driving Japan into the U.S. camp. You can see this reflected in the quality of the relationship between the U.S. and Japanese leaders (not counting matters of taste, obviously….). Barring something exceptionally unlikely, Japan’s leaders will emerge from this crisis with their nation’s power enhanced. South Korea’s will not.

1 Comment

  1. You served up some porterhouse today. This latest crisis de jour has not been a good day for the ROK. It has also shown that the US has impressive power to bear upon the NORKS, China and Russia.
    The ROK has been humiliated yet again by the NORKS(and USA). Is any country demanding the ROK conduct direct talks with the North to solve this crisis? No, in fact most players don’t want the ROK at the table and prefer the US negotiate with the NORKS directly. Then there is the evident lack of influence the ROK has on US or Japanese policy. The ROK’s insane obsession with Japan has born a durian after taste as Ban has little influence outside the Korean homeland. Who did he see? Not the Japanese, not the Americans. Just the ever hovering Chinese.
    For the Americans I think real power projection was done to intimidate all the major powers. I read a story a few months ago that I thought was alittle nuts, but I’m not so sure now. The thesis was that the US already owns a first strike capability against Russia and China. It postulated it will be even stronger with even a modest BMD. I don’t know about that, but the US certainly trumpted its BMD over the last few weeks, not so much that they would use it, but to let everyone know its operational and expanding. Then the US and Japan let everyone know they were building a Pacific spanning antimissile system. Not only is Japan buying into BMD, it’s changing its laws to allow the export of military hardware needed for Japanese contributions to BMD. Does China think Japan is paying billions for stuff that doesn’t work? America and Japan have served notice, they don’t care what the world thinks about BMD, they are building a system that will cover nearly half the globe against missiles launched from China, Russia and those NORKS.
    This NORK missile threat has too many angles for my mine to handle, but one angle, the jockeying of nations, tells me America has just used a yellow highliter on the statement that it’s a Pacific power now and for the foreseeable future. We’ve witnessed major alignment between the two of the most technologically powerful nations on the planet with China, Russia and other Pacific nations looking from the outside. So I don’t think its such a bad day for America. Then there was the curious WaPo opinion piece from Perry and the Carter guy. Wanna take a bet that Perry did not discuss his piece with Rice or a deputy before it was published? Again it underlined the fact, the US could take those missiles out, and nobody can stop us.

    Oh I almost forgot, today the House of Representatives is poised to take the first step to finally approve the nuclear deal between the US and India.
    That might have some kind of positive affect on American power in the Pacific, right?