As tensions mounted over South Korea's artillery drills on Yeonpyeong Island, the South's weakness was exposed not on the front lines but on the diplomatic front. North Korea invited New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and told him it wants to let IAEA inspectors back in, while the focus of an emergency UN Security Council meeting convened by Russia was South Korea's planned artillery drills rather than North Korea's attack on the island. After turning the tables in its favor, North Korea gloated, "The world must clearly see who is the guardian of peace and who is the warmonger."
South Korean diplomats must take a good look at their efforts on the international stage over the past month to hold North Korea to account for its illegal and inhumane actions. When the Russian foreign minister criticized North Korea's visiting foreign minister last week for shelling South Korean territory, the South Korean Foreign Ministry appeared to be taking credit for getting Russia to adopt a different stance from China. But Russia then called the UNSC meeting over the weekend and criticized South Korea's artillery drills.
Seoul has not been aggressive enough in trying to get the UNSC to condemn North Korea's attack. Top Foreign Ministry officials and diplomats in Moscow had no idea of Russia's intentions. The Foreign Ministry lost a golden opportunity to use the situation to its advantage and ended up losing to a surprise diplomatic move by North Korea.
The country's diplomatic resources alone are not enough to overcome problems on the Korean Peninsula, which is an area where the U.S. and China are engaged in a complex mixture of competition and cooperation. But they revealed just how inept they are as inter-Korean tensions mounted, with a hastily arranged visit to Seoul by Dai Bingguo, a special envoy of North Korea's main ally China, producing no results other than a lasting impression that South Korea is being pushed around by Beijing.
North Korea laid itself wide open to international condemnation by sinking the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan and shelling Yeonpyeong Island. But rather than becoming more isolated, it has managed to turn the situation into a Cold War-style confrontation where South Korea, the U.S. and Japan are squaring off against Russia, North Korea and China. South Korea's diplomatic skills must be blamed for this debacle. Diplomatic relations with Russia and China are linked directly to South Korea's national strategy.
While maintaining a solid alliance with the U.S., Seoul needs to consider soothing Beijing's nerves by sending a message that it will not add pressure on China, and it should remind Russia that cooperation on the political level can benefit both sides economically. Now the top task in national security other than maintaining a watertight military defense against North Korean provocations is to find a breakthrough in diplomatic relations with China and Russia.