An existential issue

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An existential issue

For the first time, the U.S. Defense Department has published an annual report that recognized North Korea as a nuclear power, a move that could significantly rattle the nuclear disarmament efforts of the international community. The U.S. Joint Forces Command, in its latest report, “Joint Operating Environment 2008: Challenges and Implications for the Future Joint Force,” listed the North as one of Asia’s nuclear powers, along with China, India, Pakistan and Russia. The government immediately responded to defuse a possible furor, saying the disputed part of the report does not reflect the U.S. government’s official stance. Washington pledged to make corrections immediately. Still, the latest revelation presents deep concerns that cannot be taken lightly.

The U.S. is certainly not poised to officially give the North nuclear power status, given that the six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing the country, which Washington is also a part of, are currently under way. The report may also be only a part of American contingency efforts to gird for possible nuclear threats from the North, which is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons since its contentious nuclear test in October 2006. It may only be a reflection of the U.S. government’s perception that a nuclear war may erupt in the 2030s, not an official acknowledgement that North Korea can officially operate nuclear programs.

Nevertheless, the latest development is disturbing, as the U.S. government has long taken an ambiguous stance when it comes to setting about weeding out nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula. Washington has long stressed it would never allow the North to run nuclear programs. But on the other hand, American officials have often made comments that can be interpreted to indicate Washington is willing to let a nuclear weapon or two exist on the peninsula. Indeed, the chief U.S. nuclear negotiator, Christopher Hill, said in March 2007 that the absolute red line for the North is transferring its nuclear materials to another state or another organization. The remark indicated that Washington is increasingly more focused on fending off possible nuclear proliferation than on completely eliminating the nuclear program in North Korea.

With the latest report emerging in the midst of today’s developments, it would be difficult to label the recent revelation as “only a mistake,” as the South Korean government is trying to do.

We believe that the U.S. will stick to its principle that no nuclear program is to be allowed on the Korean Peninsula. But Washington’s North Korea policies are not change-proof. Even the way the Bush administration has dealt with the North has undergone dramatic change over the past eight years. If the past is any guide, it will not be easy to predict what direction the incoming Obama administration will go in its North Korea policy.

Therefore, Seoul should not blindly stand by while the U.S. government reveals growing signs of change in its dealings with the North. We need to work harder to delve into the inner thinking of Washington policy makers. Just one or two nuclear weapons may not be a significant threat to the U.S., but here, it threatens our very existence.
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