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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on April 28)

Diplomacy 07:03 April 28, 2023

Better nuclear umbrella
Diplomatic efforts still essential to solve crisis

The much-trumpeted summit between Presidents Yoon Suk Yeol and Joe Biden is over. After removing the foam of pomp and hospitality, what's left are cold and realistic calculations.

To sum things up, South Korea received a larger and tighter nuclear umbrella from the United States through its leader's state visit.

Standing side by side before journalists after their summit, Yoon stressed an "overwhelming response" if North Korea attacks the South with nuclear weapons. Biden agreed, saying it "will result in the end of whatever regime were to take such an action."

These words are familiar, repeated almost after every summit recently.

The difference this time was they cemented such commitments in a separate joint statement called the Washington Declaration. The two sides will also launch a Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) modeled after NATO's Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) to put the words into action. But NCG is looser than NPG, as the U.S. deploys atomic bombs in Europe but not Korea.

This notwithstanding, Yoon acquired what he wanted -- Biden's promise to retaliate in the event of the North's nuclear attack against the South even if Pyongyang simultaneously hits the U.S. mainland with ICBMs. Instead, Washington secured Seoul's pledge not to have its own nuclear weapons. The U.S. will not permanently reintroduce its "strategic assets" but send them here more frequently.

The Korean leader must ponder what prompts his U.S. counterpart to move even a few inches forward in the nuclear issue. That's because Yoon had expressed his intention to develop nuclear weapons, reflecting the Korean people's desire to attain an independent self-defense system -- with nuclear arms if needed. National leaders can push ahead with their agenda, at home or abroad, only when supported by their people. We disagree that this country should have nuclear weapons. However, South Korea needs a better nuclear shield before the North drops its lampoon.

It was regrettable in this regard that the two leaders did not even pretend to resume efforts for a negotiated settlement of the nuclear crisis. Yes, the current situation might preclude such attempts. But at least the South Korean side should have attempted to put it on the table. Yoon says it is a fake peace that depends on the North's goodwill. Yet chances are that the regime in Pyongyang might have a similar thought on Washington -- and Seoul -- watching the ever-expanding joint war games against it.

Someone must stop this vicious circle of nuclear buildup and defense drills. The U.S. is best poised but unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future due to its global strategy. Seoul has limitations as a peacemaker but must try what it can.

That's why liberal governments made all-out -- and even conservative ones made some -- efforts to bring the U.S. and North Korea to the dialogue table. Frustratingly absent in the incumbent administration are such endeavors. In his early days, Yoon made some moves, offering an "audacious plan," essentially a copy of one of his conservative predecessors' proposals but with a little lower threshold. But that was all.

It may be unfair to put all blame on Yoon for the worst inter-Korean ties in a few decades. He inherited the aggravating relationship due to the breakup of the Washington-Pyongyang talks and the previous liberal government's failure to relink them. However, Yoon drove the North to the wall instead of taking up where his predecessor left off.

Under the "value alliance" banner based on freedom and democracy, the South Korean leader claims the vanguard in the trilateral alliance with the U.S. and Japan against China, Russia, and North Korea, conceding "practical interests" in economic and other areas. Little wonder Biden gave Yoon the warmest welcome only for the second time in his tenure.

French President Emmanuel Macron, Biden's first state guest, raised the issue of U.S. selfishness in the economy. Upon return home, he took an equidistance between America and China. For good or ill, Yoon will unlikely follow the example of his French counterpart.

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