[VIEWPOINT]Old habits are hard to breakNorth Korea is elevating its diplomatic threats. Pyeongyang stressed its war deterrence capability provided by its nuclear program at the United Nations on Sept. 30. A day later, the foreign ministry claimed that the North had completed the reprocessing of spent fuel rods and had used the plutonium it obtained to reinforce its nuclear deterrence capability. An anno-uncement followed saying that the nuclear reactor in Yeong-byeon was operating normally and its reprocessing facility was gearing up to resume operations.
In the past, the nuclear program was only a means to threaten the United States, and North Korea would deny the presence of a nuclear weapons development project to the international community. Now, it openly admits, almost boasts, of its nuclear capability in the name of war deterrence.
Pyeongyang no longer hides its intention to possess nuclear weapons. But its claims are being met with some doubt. While it insists that the reprocessing of over 8,000 spent fuel rods is completed, the Yeongbyeon reprocessing facility, which would have done the job, was barely ready to operate. Does that mean that North Korea has a second reprocessing facility that is capable of treating 8,000 used fuel rods?
The latest series of remarks seems to be closely related to the coming six-nations meeting. Amid the behind-the-curtain diplomatic contacts for the second meeting, Pyeongyang is playing a tough game by ratcheting up its threats about its nuclear program. Since the shocking acknowledgement of the clandestine nuclear program in October, Pyeongyang has unfolded a theory that its nuclear weapons development was to defend itself from the Bush administration’s anti-North Korea policy. The North claims that it could give up the nuclear program only when the Bush administration gave up the oppression. Then it began to demand a nonaggression treaty in return for giving up its nuclear weapons program. We can only interpret the hidden intentions behind Pyeong-yang’s recent moves in the run-up to the second round of six-nation meetings as an attempt to maximize its rewards from the multilateral talks and to induce a change of attitude concerning Korean security in Washington.
Judging from the current situation, North Korea’s threatening diplomacy might be a negotiating tactic. But it is dangerous to interpret all Pyeong-yang’s moves as negotiating tactics. It is very naive to assume that North Korea would give up its nuclear project as soon as Washington removed its pressure from the peninsula. Applying a longer-term perspective to Pyeongyang’s moves, you will realize how it has been consistently, earnestly pursuing nuclear weapons development, step by step. It would detour when faced with an obstacle, compromise when met with international criticism and seek alternatives when one plan failed, but it has never stopped crawling toward the possession of nuclear weapons. The prolonged nuclear negotiation that has been going on for the last two decades show Pyeongyang’s ambition better than anything. North Korea’s nuclear facility is not a toy gun, but a deadly weapon. North Korea has all facilities ready and is waiting to start the plant for mass production.
When the international community’s patience ran out in 1994, North Korea tentatively wrapped up the plan to mass-produce nuclear weapons. The Geneva agreement tied Pyeong-yang’s hands from increasing its quantity of nuclear weapons, but allowed the North to pursue technological advancements in its existing nuclear programs. For the last decade, North Korea could not achieve quantitative development under the framework of the Geneva agreement, but used the time to develop and improve nuclear weapons with the plutonium they already possessed in 1994. Now, Pyeongyang not only justifies its nuclear ambition as a deterrence capability but also threaten to test its weapons or shows the intention to transfer the technology to other states. North Korea is increasingly confident on the international stage. The only thing remaining is the mass production of nuclear weapons. The international community would never allow proliferation. With obvious barriers ahead, Pyeongyang is using its signature “walking-on-the-verge” tactic once again.
Our North Korean policy is based on good intentions. We want to believe that North Korea is willing to change but the internal and external environment does not allow the change. Seoul is trying to help create an environment where Pyeongyang could come out of its isolation. Even when deciding the troop deployment to Iraq, Seoul tried to confirm Washington’s willingness in the nuclear talks and its pledge for regional stability. But Pyeongyang embarrassed the bona fides of South Korea by brazenly admitting its nuclear ambitions.
We do not have much time to settle the nuclear issue. If North Korea continues to use it as a threat and does not provide a promise to freeze its nuclear activities, the negotiations could rupture at any time. Creating the right environment for Pyeongyang is important. But the question is whether the North can break its old habits.
* The writer is a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Yun Duk-min