[OUTLOOK]A crisis that no one really seesHaving wasted time weighing the gravity and the veracity of North Korea’s claims, we now have to worry about a nuclear weapons test. Even at this grave juncture, a sense of crisis and a grasp of the situation’s urgency are nowhere to be found, whether at home or abroad. What if Pyongyang decides to test a nuclear weapon?
Events are driven by currents. In North Korea, there is an organized, political current that has been leading the country to nuclear-power status for a couple of decades. There is a large-scale organization making these decisions, with a political cause to justify what it is doing. This current has brought events to where they stand now: on the brink of a nuclear weapons test, to make things official.
By nature, having an enemy is the premise for taking up arms. Therefore, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not a question for Pyongyang alone, but for the entire international community. So six of the nations involved launched talks to discuss the matter. Pyongyang’s nuclear test will destroy the grounds for discussion, and decisively change the current away from negotiation. It is hard to guess where the current will flow next. This is a crisis.
Nevertheless, Korean society and the other nations involved in this issue have never seriously discussed the political and military significance of North Korea’s nuclear arms.
There has been abstract discussion of the nuclear arms race in East Asia that a nuclear North Korea will spark. But that has not been followed by a discussion of what that will mean for the lives and deaths of real people. Let’s look at two issues.
In the scenario that is least desired, but which is nevertheless possible ― that of war breaking out on the Korean Peninsula ― that war is more likely to be a nuclear war if North Korea has nuclear arms. If the presence of nuclear arms makes it less likely that war will break out, then, fortunately, the two effects cancel each other out. But is that really how it works?
Theoretical strategists agree that nuclear arms without a deterrent capability ― that is, the ability to respond to an enemy’s nuclear strike ― only increases the possibility of war. In other words, a nuclear North Korea makes war more likely. Let me say it again: If Pyongyang makes it official that it has nuclear arms, then war in Korea is more likely, and it is more likely to be nuclear. This is a solemn matter of war and peace, of life and death, from which we should not look away.
This is a strategic issue. It is because the countries involved have approached it on a tactical level, not a strategic level, that the nuclear crisis has continuously worsened over the past two and a half years and seems headed for its final rupture. Let’s look at some examples.
Because of domestic politics, Japan took a tactical approach to the nuclear issue, linking it with the issue of the Japanese citizens abducted by the North. Russia is also thinking tactically, if it is only participating in the six-way talks as a way of having influence in Northeast Asia.
If Beijing hopes to use its influence over North Korea to get Washington to change its Taiwan policy, that is a tactical maneuver. If the United States uses the threat posed by North Korea as a justification for building a missile defense network, then it is also thinking tactically.
If South Korea is more interested in its rhetoric of “peace” and “cooperation” than in resolving the nuclear tension, then it is mistaking the means for the end. Finally, and most importantly, if Pyongyang believes it can enhance its status internationally by aggravating this crisis, then it is engaging in a petty, tactical maneuver.
The North Korean nuclear crisis has at last come to a strategic turning point, not a tactical one. To the people living on the Korean Peninsula, and to a lesser extent to everyone living in Northeast Asia, the nuclear crisis is quite literally a matter of life and death. If any government in the region, which is responsible for the lives of its people, has risked strategic loss in pursuit of modest tactical gains, it amounts to sacrificing the larger strategic interest of the nation by indulging small, tactical ones.
Five of the nations in the six-way talks need to reconsider this issue from a strategic point of view and demand that North Korea make a strategic choice. It’s about time that Pyongyang made a choice between continued existence and the collapse of the regime. We have come to a point where tactical approaches can no longer solve the problem. We don’t have to let a fire burn us to understand that it is hot.
* The writer is a professor of international relations at the Graduate School of International Studies at ChungAng University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Tae-hyun