[Viewpoint] Time to reunify both Korea and China

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[Viewpoint] Time to reunify both Korea and China

The domestic responses to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests have boiled down to three major opinions: that the South must regain “nuclear sovereignty,” that it must postpone the transfer of wartime operational control of the ROK armed forces, or that it should appeal to China to stop North Korea’s reckless adventurism.

The first option sounds quite attractive to people who demand the restoration of the “dignity” of a sovereign state. It also appears logical to adopt an eye-for-an-eye policy to end provocations by the weak and impoverished. It may even be scientifically and technologically feasible for the South to overtake the North in nuclear capabilities soon, even as a late starter.

Despite all these arguments, this option is logically flawed and realistically dangerous to implement. The world rebukes North Korea for nonsensically developing useless strategic arms. No state can be justified in developing a useless arsenal to deter the useless weapons of others.

North Korea may feel it needs nuclear weapons for their sheer bluffing power against neighbors and major powers and so it can export them to “rogue states” and non-state actors such as international terrorists. But South Korea never needs to bluff to any other country, not even North Korea. It does not need to develop and export strategic arms that may jeopardize its own peace and security, while developing and exporting so many other high-tech items that contribute to world peace and prosperity.

The “nuclear sovereignty” option, therefore, would only support North Korea’s attempt to create a “butterfly effect” that would embroil the whole world in a nuclear domino effect starting from South Korea and going on to Japan, Taiwan, Iran, and eventually around the globe.

Under these circumstances, the North has nothing to lose, while the South has quite a bit to lose should the Korean Peninsula go nuclear.

Many of the nuclear sovereignty advocates argue that South Korea does not actually need to go nuclear - that it would be enough to announce its intent to do so merely as a policy to deter North Korea.

On the contrary, South Korea would be better off going in the direction exactly opposite of North Korea whenever the South feels the strong impulse to exercise eye-for-an-eye tactics.

As far as nuclear issues are concerned, South Korea has come a long way in that direction by becoming one of the major nuclear electricity-generating countries in the world. I strongly recommend the South keep its faith in its own agenda, to become the world’s largest exporter of nuclear technology for peaceful uses. As for the North’s intercontinental and other ballistic missile tests, the South can demonstrate a clear contrast by launching bona fide satellites and building up surveillance capabilities from outer space. This is how to obtain unswerving support both domestically and internationally, and to secure national security in the long term.

The debate surrounding the second option, regarding wartime OPCON, has been heated mainly due to confusion between national pride and the efficiency of military operations in the event of an emergency. The conservatives assert their opposition to the dissolution of the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command so that it may retain wartime operational control.

The CFC came into being in 1978 at the apex of the Cold War so that local forces would be prepared for the possible dissolution of the United Nations Command. The CFC has successfully carried out its mission to deter war over the last 31 years, whereas North Korea’s persistent attempts to the dismantle the UNC did not come to pass, thus allowing South Korea to enjoy double the security assurances through a dual apparatus.

Since North Korea has declared the Korean armistice null and void, one could technically say we are at war and that operational control should be given over to the CFC commander. The Republic of Korea must now return to the wisdom of its founding father, Dr. Syngman Rhee, who delegated to the allies as much authority as they needed in pursuit of pragmatic interests while taking decisive action whenever such interests were in jeopardy. I hope that both conservatives and progressives calm down and reach a grand consensus to dismantle the CFC on schedule but keep wartime OPCON with the UNC. The UNC has long been represented by a ROK general to the Military Armistice Commission. By appointing a ROK general as deputy commander of the UNC, South Korea can maximize its practical interests while retaining wartime efficiency.

On June 2, two weeks before the forthcoming summit meeting between President Lee Myung-bak and President Barack Obama, Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center hosted a seminar in Seoul to disclose, among other things, the recommendations of the New Beginnings group during both the Bush and Obama administrations: non-acceptance of the North Korean nuclear program, transfer of wartime OPCON as scheduled, and early ratification of the ROK-U.S. free trade agreement.

Some U.S. participants in the seminar replied, if the issue of the date of wartime OPCON transfer is reopened, the ROK and U.S. governments would again be in a renewed and endless controversy. Of course, it is quite unacceptable for a reliable ally to raise a settled issue every time a new government takes power. But if there is a viable third way, the two governments must be brave and end the controversy once and for all.

At the Global Korea 2009 International Conference held in Seoul on Feb. 23, former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry concluded that the Obama administration’s North Korea policy should be based on ideas. But the American North Korea policy has staggered not because of a dearth of ideas but because of China’s perceived vital interest in maintaining the status quo in the Northeast Asian region. In this context, the third view on the Chinese role in resolving the conundrum of North Korean weapons of mass destruction is to put a bell on the cat’s neck. China asserts that its relationship with North Korea is the same as with any normal independent state, that its leverage on North Korea is far more limited than suspected and that South Korea’s diplomatic clout is weak compared to its national power, and that gives North Korea a considerable advantage in negotiations, despite all the adverse conditions it suffers.

North Korea has now achieved its interim objective of an Asian nuclear and missile threat and is laying the foundation for a third generation of hereditary rule. The North softens its stance on and off to buy time, depending on the overall situation in the region and the world. Nonetheless, not only neighboring and major powers but also North Korea itself knows its days are numbered.

The time is ripe for China to make an epochal strategic decision to reunify with Taiwan while allowing North Korea to be reunified with its Southern counterpart. The decision must be put into practice while the Kuomintang is in power on Taiwan. The United States should concentrate its efforts on persuading China to take this road. It must first abrogate its domestic Taiwan Relations Act, which contradicts its long-standing one-China policy. Then can it have China ask it for a grand compromise and simultaneous reunifications of Korea and of China.

We all know this is not an easy task in the face of active Taiwanese lobbyists on Capitol Hill, but it is the right time for the United States to put a bell on the cat’s neck no matter whether it is a black cat or a white cat. The return of Hong Kong and Macao to China has set an exemplary model for Taiwan’s future prosperity as part of China. This is the right way for the contemporary great powers to become historic architects and help realize real stability in East Asia. I earnestly hope that Japan, Russia, India, the European Union, and the other powers of the world convince the United States to put a strategic bell on China’s neck.

The writer is a professor emeritus at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

by Jae-bum Kim

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