[Viewpoint] The North’s nuclear card

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[Viewpoint] The North’s nuclear card

The political climate on the Korean Peninsula is mysterious. The shocks from the sinking of the Cheonan and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island are still vivid in our memories, but a warm breeze is blowing over the peninsula. It is unclear if the breeze signals the arrival of spring or is a climate anomaly. It may help to look at the situation from the other side to understand the whole picture. What is North Korea’s perspective on the nuclear issue? Pyongyang is responsible for creating and developing the nuclear problem.

After North Korea was devastated in the Korean War, it revived its economy in a relatively short period of time. A planned economy, a system in which the government controls all aspects of industry, was the best way to achieve such rapid growth. The North Korean economy was once praised by western economists, but it couldn’t overcome the innate limitations of the socialist system. As their economic plans failed to attain the goals several times in the 1970s, North Korea lost its momentum. By the end of the 1980s, it was at the threshold of system collapse after the fall of communism in the Soviet bloc. The North Korean leadership of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il chose nuclear armament as a last resort to defend its system. It was a challenging objective, but if successfully attained, not even the United States or Japan would dare to bring down North Korea.

In fact, the nuclear card proved to be more useful than Pyongyang originally thought. The United States could not afford to risk another war on the Korean Peninsula, so it offered carrots in the end. Through the 1994 Geneva Agreement, Washington promised construction of a light-water reactor and crude petroleum assistance until the reactor’s completion. When North Korea suffered a famine and flood and tens of thousands of people died during the Ardous March, the Geneva Agreement brought great help. Because the United States was helping North Korea, countries around the world followed with assistance. The effects of the nuclear card were confirmed and Pyongyang wanted to use it more.

The famine turned misfortune into a blessing. People in the South pitied the suffering North Koreans, and the public increasingly supported the Sunshine Policy. Other countries became more sympathetic, and an unprecedented volume of economic assistance was provided. To Pyongyang, it was a great opportunity to beef up its nuclear card. Just in time, the United States’ new president, George W. Bush, defined North Korea a member of the Axis of Evil and declared it would not compromise. So nothing was holding back Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Since the United States did not attack North Korea in its early stages of nuclear development, Pyongyang calculated that the U.S. wouldn’t strike a nuclear-armed North Korea. You cannot expect a big return without taking a risk.

So Pyongyang demonstrated its nuclear capability by conducting two nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009. Now, no one denies the fact that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons. Yet, countries concerned about North Korea’s nuclear armament argue that they cannot acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear power. Pyongyang has worked on its nuclear card enough, so it is about time to start negotiating again. However, after having been deceived a number of times, the United States won’t be fooled again. So North Korea has to resort to shock treatment. It thus picked on the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea. Would Washington remain calm when a South Korean naval vessel is attacked and Yeonpyeong Island is bombed? Provocations would certainly make the United States upset, but ultimately, it would have to offer its hand. The United States had changed its attitude whenever the presidential election approaches.

This may be the calculation going on inside North Korea’s head. So what is the motivation behind the breeze in 2011? It is more likely to be a climate anomaly, like a curiously warm day in winter. So how should Seoul respond? The North Korean nuclear program is a crucial security issue and an obstacle for Korea’s prosperity. Yet, there is not a clear, fundamental solution. Refusing to recognize the challenge would be ignoring the reality.

A problem is not solved but resolved. Even if there is no solution for the problem, the problem itself may not matter as the time changes. What will be that time? No one has the answer.

In the end, we can only endure the problem until it goes away and try to prevent the situation from getting worse. Now is the moment to opt for the second best choice.

North Korea thinks it has earned a lot by using the nuclear card. However, in the long run, it may have lost more than it gained by obsessing over its nuclear program. Historically, no society or state survived very long by refusing to accept the changes of the time. Regrettably, the nuclear card seems to be the cause - and result - of North Korea’s failure to adapt to the changing times.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


By Kang Young-jin
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