[OUTLOOK]A way to handle the NorthThe North Korean nuclear issue is now at a crossroads where it will be settled peacefully or bring us to the brink of a calamity.
Though Bush administration officials have moderated talk of the need for a “regime change” in Pyeongyang in recent weeks, there are still influential circles near the center of American power that would like to see North Korea’s leaders brought down. The new approach is a call for “regime transformation.”
Still, the U.S. hard-liners have apparently provoked President Roh Moo-hyun to speak out. “With countries and people who want ‘regime change’ in North Korea, we can’t work together harmoniously,” he said. “If I seem somewhat ‘pink’ to someone over this issue, I can’t help it.”
Mr. Roh, instead, emphasizes “South Korea’s leading role” in solving the North’s nuclear problem. The attitudes, “regime change” and “South Korea’s leading role,” are going to characterize the North Korean nuclear issue this year.
“Regime change” is reminiscent of Iraq. The war was prompted to expel Saddam Hussein and install a democratic regime in Iraq, and the world will soon see who the new leader will be. The question is: By “regime change,” do people in Washington mean to repeat in the North what occurred in Iraq? Of course, they don’t.
President Bush assured Pyeongyang on several occasions that Washington had no intention of attacking North Korea, and Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated the U.S. position repeatedly. A senior White House official even publicly abandoned the use of “regime change” saying that the United States is hoping for a“transformation” of the communist regime.
North Korea rejected a comprehensive new U.S. proposal at the third round of six-way talks on its nuclear aspirations in June. Some in Washington interpreted the North’s rejection as a sign that Kim Jong-il had chosen not to abandon his nuclear weapons program. Others took the view that Mr. Kim was expecting more favorable conditions if John Kerry won the November election. No one knows whether Mr. Kim had chosen not to abandon the nuclear weapons program or had decided to wait for a more favorable U.S administration.
Either way, he won more time to convert used nuclear fuel rods into weapons material. In addition, international opinion shifted during the campaign and highlighted the nuclear weapons program as a major international issue.
But if Washington opts to use force to effect regime change or transformation, it needs a careful assessment of the risks and likely consequences.
There are non-military means with which the United States and its allies can pressure North Korea. Japan can stop pro-Pyeongyang Korean residents’ remittances to the North and cut off economic assistance programs. South Korea can suspend various economic cooperation projects. Washington can ban economic transactions with the North or perhaps blockade its ports.
However, on Dec. 15, North Korea threatened Japan saying that it would treat economic sanctions as a “declaration of war.” Even if the United States and its allies increase diplomatic and economic pressure, they could be forced into a situation where they have to use force depending on Pyeongyang’s reaction.
Therefore, Washington should prepare military deterrence that can offset the North’s military threat. When Eastern Europe collapsed in 1980s, Kim Jong-il is said to have told his close associates that they could also face the same fate as Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu and his family. He is also said to have been hiding in underground shelters when the U.S. military started air raids over Iraq. If Washington assures Mr. Kim the United States has the capability of destroying the North’s nuclear warheads before they can be used, and deter North Korean missiles as well as long-range guns deployed along the Demilitarized Zone before they cause serious damage to the North’s neighboring countries, the threat of “regime change” or “transformation of the regime” in Pyeongyang may work, theoretically.
For the U.S. government to focus on the number of warheads North Korea possesses has not been a good strategy. It can be compared to inspectors from the UN International Atomic Energy Agency claiming right before the war in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was hiding nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The nuclear watchdog helped create anti-Iraq opinion and abetted Washington in its move to war.
There is no need to call attention to the number of warheads in the North. This will only help North Korea raise the rewards it expects for its nuclear blackmail.
It would be more helpful to solving the North Korean nuclear problem if U.S. government agencies assure the world as well as North Korea that the few primitive bombs in its hand are a threat that the U.S. military can handle easily.
President Roh’s “leading role” of South Korea also needs some adjustments as well. A series of remarks he made during a tour in Europe and Asia in December about North Korea could have been intended to bring Kim Jong-il to a summit in Seoul.
In order to play a “leading role,” Mr. Roh may need direct talks with Mr. Kim. But the talks themselves are not the goal. South Korea’s “leading role” is not in advocating the North’s position to Seoul’s allies, but in persuading Kim Jong-il to abandon his nuclear weapons program.
* The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo