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[Viewpoint] Getting China on board

Talk of resolving the North Korea nuclear crisis now has to encompass plans for reunification.

June 24,2009
What was the biggest outcome of the Korea-U.S. summit between President Lee Myung-bak and President Barack Obama? Generally, people point to the united front on the resolution concerning the North Korean nuclear threat, affirmation of the U.S. security policy and the mutual understanding on the free trade agreement between the two countries.

But I am skeptical about the Lee-Obama resolution on the North Korean nuclear issue, since President Lee and President Obama did not specifically mention the role of China at the summit.

The day before the summit, I made a statement at a seminar concerning the Korean Peninsula at American University in Washington, D.C. I said China needs to play a more prominent role in trying to solve the nuclear crisis. Without Beijing’s cooperation, the North Korean nuclear crisis will never be resolved.

Fortunately, the Lee-Obama summit may be remembered as historic since Seoul and Washington, for the first time, took a more comprehensive overview of the unification of the Korean Peninsula.

The Joint Vision for the Korea-U.S. Alliance issued by the two heads of state stipulated in writing that the Korean Peninsula will pursue peaceful unification based on the principles of liberal democracy and market economy.

Since the days of the Kim Dae-jung administration, Korea has been careful not to upset Pyongyang. Officials have been reluctant to map out unification objectives. But, unlike vague modifiers such as “loosely defined federation” in the past, the new vision clearly defines unification in the form of liberal democracy. This is especially meaningful because the agreement has been drawn up with the less hawkish Democratic administration in the United States, rather than the more bellicose Republicans.

What’s clear now is that we cannot address the North Korean nuclear crisis in isolation. The six-party talks have failed because countries considered it to be an independent issue. The premise of the six-party talks was that the North Korean nuclear crisis can be resolved through diplomatic channels. This was a naive position, one that fails to grasp why Pyongyang wants nuclear weapons in the first place.

To North Korea, nuclear weapons are directly related to national interest. Pyongyang strongly believes the country will fall if it does not pursue nuclear development. No country is willing to make concessions on national interest when its own survival is under threat.

So the question is, will North Korea give up national interest for the material compensation of economic cooperation, or a mere peace agreement document?

Since the nuclear program is directly related to the existence of North Korea, removing the nuclear program means radically changing North Korea’s political system. In other words, the nuclear program cannot be addressed separately from the existence of the state, and the existence of North Korea is directly related to the unification of the Korean Peninsula.

Therefore, the resolution of the nuclear crisis has to be a part of the reunification process. Before tackling the nuclear issue, there has to be a blueprint on how to pursue unification, and dismantling the nuclear program has to be in accordance with this blueprint.

That’s why the influence of China is so crucial. North Korea would fail as a state if it wasn’t for the assistance of China in the form of, for example, energy. No matter what kind of sanctions the United Nations Security Council imposes, North Korea will stick to its current course as long as China continues to help.

In the meantime, Beijing must be contemplating the choice between approving a nuclear-armed North Korea and letting it maintain the existing system, or dismantling the nuclear program and changing the system.

In April, 2003, Bush administration Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld circulated a Pentagon memo that said the nuclear crisis could only be resolved when the North Korean leadership was changed with Beijing’s nod of approval. For China to cooperate, South Korea and the United States need to guarantee that any changes on the Korean Peninsula will never disadvantage China. We need to reassure China about all of its concerns, especially fears about refugees, should numbers of defectors begin to surge if North Korea collapses.

China also needs guarantees about the actions of U.S. Forces in Korea should they move up to Amnok River in the North.

Therefore, we first need an agreement between South Korea and the United States on the final face of the Korean Peninsula after the unification.

The agreement that a unified Korea will pursue liberal democracy and a market economy is a fair indication of the direction the peninsula will take, and a meaningful guide as so many variables are at play in the process of resolving the crisis.

And, above all, we need to persuade China that a unified Korea will be to China’s advantage.

I believe that the North Korean nuclear issue will turn out to be a blessing disguised as an obstacle, and will open the door to a unified Korea. The more Pyongyang nervously tests its nuclear weapons, the closer we will be to an opportunity for unification.

The problem is preparation. Are we ready?

The other side is fighting for survival, so we will have to endure a certain amount of suffering. Without pain, there will be no resolution.

South Korea will also need the general public to stand squarely behind its leadership. The Lee Myung-bak administration needs to ask itself if it has that kind of trust from its citizens.


*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Moon Chang-keuk



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