[Viewepoint] Tough stance paying dividends

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[Viewepoint] Tough stance paying dividends

South Korea, backed by strong support from the United States, has finally succeeded in pushing Kim Jong-Il back on his heels. The latest developments on the Korean Peninsula suggest that Seoul’s new, more forceful posturing efforts have been effective and that the North is desperate for a reprieve from South Korean pressure.

Pyongyang’s response to South Korean live-fire artillery exercises on Yeonpyeong Island provides reason for hope. While the North had threatened to retaliate to such exercises with an attack that would “be deadlier than what was made on Nov. 23 in terms of the powerfulness and sphere of the strike,” bluster gave way to a whimper.

There were no “brutal consequences beyond imagination,” as promised, but instead the North issued a statement claiming that it “did not feel any need to retaliate” and asserted that “the world should properly know who is the true champion of peace and who is the real provocateur of war.”

While North Korea’s claim to be a champion of peace was likely an attempt at international public relations, the new turn in South Korea’s strategy toward the North surely had much to do with the North’s failure to retaliate as threatened. The South is standing up for itself in a way it has not in years.

Seoul’s statements and actions have been strong and without nuance. On Nov. 29, President Lee Myung-bak said that in response to future attacks by North Korea, “we will make sure that it pays a dear price without fail.” On Dec. 3, the new South Korean defense minister promised at his confirmation hearing that “if there are further provocations, we will definitely use aircraft to bomb North Korea.”

To wit, as South Korean soldiers engaged in artillery drills on Yeonpyeong Island, armed forces throughout the country went on high alert, and F-15Ks took to the skies, ready to keep the defense minister’s promise if ordered.

Fortunately, though not surprisingly, North Korea backed down in the face of a real military threat. Pyongyang’s leaders - as loony as they seem - are actually rational actors and are unwilling to get into a fight they cannot win. In adopting an assertive posture, Seoul is finally teaching Kim Jong-Il and his compatriots that there are consequences for their actions.

The pressure - from a South Korean military on alert, joint military exercises with the United States in the region and the halting of aid from the South - is having an effect on the North. Perhaps dismayed by Seoul’s outright refusal, with the support of Tokyo and Washington, to return to the six-party talks following the Nov. 23 shelling, North Korea invited New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to Pyongyang for unofficial talks.

North Korean officials have reportedly told Richardson that they are willing to allow United Nations nuclear inspectors into the Yongbyon nuclear complex and to sell 12,000 plutonium rods to the South.

These are notable concessions, but it is unclear what the North expects in return, and it remains to be seen whether these concessions will actually curtail the North’s efforts at building nuclear weapons.

Just prior to the shelling of Yeonpyeong, North Korea publicly revealed its uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon. Since then, both South Korean and U.S. intelligence officials have asserted a belief that Pyongyang has built a number of other secret uranium enrichment facilities throughout the country. In other words, inspections of Yongbyon are useless if other nuclear facilities remain secret. Likewise, the export of plutonium rods is a hollow win if the North has decided to pursue uranium weaponization instead.

South Korean and U.S. officials should avoid the temptation to return to the six-party talks, even given the results of Richardson’s negotiations in Pyongyang.

New Mexico’s governor described the concessions as “important progress.” But this progress is not enough to suggest that the North is ready to forfeit its nuclear weapons program or to halt its violent provocations against the South.

Seoul should keep up the pressure on its northern neighbor, and the United States should support its ally in that effort. The South Korean military should maintain its current high tempo of military exercises, and Seoul should continue its tough stance. President Lee should end South Korean investment in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, whose profits nourish Pyongyang’s leadership, once and for all.

The South should also step up funding for radio stations that transmit to the North, and the Army should threaten to blast propaganda messages across the demilitarized zone.

South Korean pressure on the North has been working, and the South has nonviolent ways to increase that pressure. Seoul should see what other concessions Pyongyang may be willing to offer.

If North Korea eventually offers to abandon its nuclear weapons program in a verifiable way and demonstrates its sincerity to do so by halting preparations for a spring nuclear test, then it might be time to return to negotiations.

That would be real progress.

*The writer is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

By Michael Mazza
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