[Viewpoint] 20 years after the joint declaration

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[Viewpoint] 20 years after the joint declaration

The two-day Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul has meaning beyond being one of the largest congregations of world leaders. The summit has brought to Seoul leaders from four international organizations and 53 countries, including the Group of Two countries - the United States and China - to work on a lofty agenda. They have their work cut out for them.

It is hard, however, to expect Koreans to have much interest in the event as they are fatigued with international conferences in Seoul and engrossed in the legislative election coming in just two weeks. It might have been different if the summit was primarily focused more tightly on resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. Instead, the forum addresses the wider threat of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, which the Korean people can relate to. Therefore, we should be aware and alert to the need for nuclear security and safety.

We need to pay greater interest to nuclear security and safety and understand the background of the issues in order to make the right choices about thorny questions ahead of us. The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex underscored the complexities behind policy choices to ensure the safety of nuclear energy.

The government’s policies and public opinion about he necessity and potential dangers of nuclear power are not necessarily jibing. Calls for new, safe energy sources are gaining greater grounds as radiation contamination from the Fukushima disaster continues. The recent blackout at the aged Gori-1 reactor only fanned public suspicion of nuclear power. Germany and Japan, despite their advanced technology, are considering abandoning nuclear energy to power their nations more safely.

We cannot make such an extreme decision because of our steep reliance on nuclear energy to run a resource-scarce economy. Nuclear energy accounts for 31 percent of the country’s total power as its cost of generation is much cheaper than thermo and hydro power stations. Korea cannot easily fold its grand plan of becoming a reactor powerhouse with 21 reactors, seven under construction and six planned, in addition to exports to the Middle East. Nuclear energy is the cleanest, cheapest and most environmentally friendly.

But it is unclear if our people, who use more electricity on a per capita basis than the Japanese, are willing to pay more to ensure safety in our nuclear reactors. Today, our electric bills are just half the average of the countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. The government and politicians must conduct a thorough and balanced debate before taking policy steps to enhance nuclear safety.

Nuclear security to make a world free of the threat of nuclear weapons is on par with endeavors to reduce nuclear arms, prevent nuclear proliferation and terrorism. The Nuclear Security Summit is held in this land as it celebrates the 20th anniversary of the signing of the joint declaration on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula by the two Koreas in 1992. Among the 250,000 victims who died from the atomic bombing at Hiroshima on Aug. 8 1945, 25,000 were ethnic Koreans, many of whom who were taken from their homes and forced to work in arms factories by the Japanese colonial government.

Considering those lasting scars, the 1992 joint declaration was the culmination of a longing for irrefutable protection from the danger of a nuclear war, and it was signed by the leaders of the two Koreas. It was a history-making promise to pave the way to coexistence of two different societies on the same peninsula. Two decades have passed since the joint statement. We must look back on the failures and problems and revisit the ideals and commitments of the declaration, which offered the best common path for the two Koreas as well as the entire global community before it is too late.

North Korea celebrates a centennial of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth this year. We hope it will revive his biggest legacy: the signing of the joint declaration. North Korea’s actions cannot only turn over a new leaf in inter-Korean relations, but could also help to reduce the risk of a race among Asian countries to increase their stocks of nuclear arms. That is bound to produce unnecessary tension between the U.S. and China.

*The author is former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hong-koo

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