[VIEWPOINT]Unpeeling the nuclear onion

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[VIEWPOINT]Unpeeling the nuclear onion

The second round of six-party talks will be held in Beijing from Feb. 25 to 28. This is the result of behind-the-scenes coordination that has been going on since the second half of last year. But the prospects for the talks, to be held amid the unnarrowed differences of opinions between North Korea and the United States, is not entirely bright. North Korea is expected to insist on its offer of “simultaneous steps toward a resolution of the problem,” so a conflict will be inevitable between the North and the United States. Washington has insisted that Pyeongyang give up its nuclear program as a precondition to any progress.
But even if the United States were to yield to the North’s proposal and succeed in the resolution, many pitfalls would still remain.
“Simultaneous steps toward a resolution” means that the United States and the international community would give North Korea political recognition and economic assistance along with security assurances in return for the North’s scrapping of its nuclear program. As the first step, the United States would resume energy aid and lift all its sanctions once the North freezes its nuclear facilities.
The first concern about this kind of resolution is the possibility of cheating by the North. To North Korea, weapons of mass destruction are an important means to maintain its regime. In other words, because of their high value as a means to resist pressure from the outside, as a symbol of authority to maintain domestic rule and as a means to earn foreign currency, the possibility always remains that the North could resume its nuclear development secretly at any time as long as the present regime is in place. In this process, its enriched-uranium program has great significance. North Korea admitted the existence of that program in October 2002, causing the present nuclear standoff. But now it denies again that it has such a program, which may be aimed at paving the way for nuclear weapons development even after the resolution of the nuclear issue by keeping it out of the six-way talks.
Second, even if the North gave up its nuclear development completely, the problems would not be over. North Korea would try to retain the world’s third-largest chemical and biological weapons stockpile and the sixth-largest missile force in the world. Accordingly, the country might again have a bout of conflict with the United States over those weapons in the future.
Pyeongyang would believe that once Washington had assured its security, it could freely maintain its autocratic regime marked by the deification of its leader and tight social controls. This may be the ultimate goal of North Korea. In this way, Pyeongyang could succeed in its “give a bit and take all” strategy, but this is never the way everyone wants to resolve the nuclear problem. Here lies the Bush administration’s continued problems.
After all, the essence of the North’s nuclear problem lies in Pyeongyang’s desire to maintain its regime. Pyeongyang knows, too, that if it discards weapons of mass destruction and accepts the request for reform and opening its doors, it could end the hostile relations with Washington and improve its economy. Because the United States is not an expansionist invasion force, North Korea would not need to confront the United States if it did not do what the United States abhors. Despite all this knowledge, the North cannot act on it, mainly because reform and an open-door policy would bring “capitalistic pollution” and threaten the existence of its regime.
If a party loses power in a democratic country, it remains as an opposition party. But as can be seen in Ceausescu’s regime in Romania, the moment a regime maintained by idolatry and dictatorship falls, it comes to a miserable end. As long as Pyeongyang sticks with maintaining the regime, the nuclear problem will remain alive, like riding on the tiger’s back. It’s immediate death if the rider falls. Or perhaps it’s riding a bicycle, which falls over when it comes to a stop.
For this reason, successful resolution of the nuclear problem should be accompanied by the democratization of North Korea. Of course, as it is the case with every matter in the world, the most urgent problem should be solved first in many cases.
It would be unreasonable to rush to solve all the problems of North Korea in one or two rounds of talks.
But the concerned parties should keep in mind the essence of the North Korean nuclear problem before they begin to negotiate. When North Korea starts to turn its regime into one in which it no longer needs to play an absurd power game to confront the United States with weapons of mass destruction, the dark shadow of nuclear arms over the Korean Peninsula will disappear.

* The writer is a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Tae-woo
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