[Viewpoint] Ignoring Pyongyang’s threat

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[Viewpoint] Ignoring Pyongyang’s threat

If not for the timely golden apple - or the Apple of Discord - thrown by the trouble-making Greek goddess of strife, Eris, or in this case North Korea, the gathering of world leaders on the theme of nuclear security in Seoul could have ended up more or less drab. Eris, who was not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, attempted to crash the party by tossing an apple inscribed “To the most beautiful one,” sparking an argument among the goddesses over who was entitled to the description. The Prince of Troy, who ended up awarding the apple to Aphrodite over Hera and Athena, caused a war that doomed his city.

The Nuclear Security Summit, the second of its kind, was started to make the world safer from nuclear terrorism by preventing nuclear material from falling into evil hands. It can hardly grab the attention of the ordinary public with all the technical acronyms - Cppnm (Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material) and Gicnt (Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism) - and a theme too broad and opaque for common understanding.

The conference does not produce tension among national leaders. They act on arrangements and scenarios drawn up in working-level groups and end with a photo session. But unexpected drama to an otherwise boring meeting was added by North Korea’s new young leader Kim Jong-un, who played the role of Eris tossing a golden apple inscribed with a threat to launch a long-range rocket.

The not-yet-30 and untested son of Kim Jong-il would have made his father proud in his debut on the global stage. His name was on the lips of the leaders of 53 states, including global powers, as well as four major international security organizations during the two-day summit. The summit’s first day, as well as sideline discussions, centered on North Korea and its plan to launch a satellite using a long-range rocket next month. The brinkmanship from the North Korean political novice stole the spotlight even from U.S. and Chinese leaders.

One senior diplomat of the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration likes to call the Pyongyang regime a religious cult invented by the founder and deity Kim Il Sung. The grandson and heir to the Kim Il Sung cult needed a spectacle to consolidate the faith of the followers and took a page from his father’s manual by threatening the world with the testing of a long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads. By standing tall against the world’s superpowers, the new leader can wring loyalty, faith and respect from his people.

To the young leader with little military or political experience, reinforcing his support base among the elite class is more imperative than the recent agreement with the U.S. to suspend missile and nuclear programs in return for humanitarian aid to feed his starving people.

That is why, despite the synchronized condemnation from world leaders, North Korea will likely push ahead with the launch, according to the senior diplomat.

What’s worrisome is the aftermath of the launch. China joined the chorus of warning against North Korea’s launch but can advocate for its trouble-making ally and differ with the U.S. and other United Nations Security Council members once the rocket goes off. Additional Security Council actions cannot be possible if China vetoes, fearing instability in the impoverished nation. But U.S. President Barack Obama cannot spare any generosity or tolerance to North Korea’s defiance ahead of his re-election bid in November.

In Seoul, Obama was embarrassed when an open mic picked up a conversation with Russia’s outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev that implied flexibility in the contentious issue of missile defense after the November election. The U.S. will likely join South Korea, Japan and the European Union to crack down harder on North Korea’s funding channels and trade. Then, North Korea will likely respond in its usual belligerent way of testing a nuclear weapon.

North Korea could be the 10th country to place a satellite into orbit with self-developed technology if the launch actually succeeds. One cannot entirely discount success of North Korea’s rocket technology despite three past failures. If it succeeds, it joins Iran in the dangerous ranks of owning intercontinental ballistic missile technology as well as nuclear weapons ambitions.

The trick by Eris eventually led to the Trojan War. Military responses to deter North Korea’s launch could spark a confrontation that could spiral out of control. It may be best to just let North Korea do what it pleases. No matter how confident and foolish it may be, it can hardly fire nuclear warheads across the Pacific Ocean to reach U.S. territories. North Korea will only enjoy its performance if it has an audience. It’s better for us to ignore the feat until Pyongyang gets tired of its tricks and is finally worn out by its long isolation and the sanctions against it.

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

by Bae Myong-bok
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