[Viewpoint] Standing up to the North

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[Viewpoint] Standing up to the North

After World War II ended, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said that it was an “unnecessary war.” With appropriate actions, Hitler could have been given sufficient warnings and held in check. However, a policy of appeasement gave Hitler exactly the wrong signal.

Similar concerns are raised in Korea over Pyongyang’s plan to launch the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite. Appeasement and a direction-less policy by Seoul and Washington have contributed to the crisis. In short, proper warnings have not been sent to Pyongyang.

How could there be appropriate actions? Churchill felt that the British and American democracies showed their flaws. Of course, his warnings also applied to the democracy of the Weimar Republic that entrusted power to Hitler.

Similarly, the North Korean crisis is not unrelated to the flaws of South Korean politics, which are troubled with internal discord. On top of this, the third generation dynastical power succession in the North Korean system contributed additional tension.

President Lee Myung-bak said in a news conference last year that North Korean society is on the verge of collapse. A few days ago, Minister of Unification Yu Woo-ik compared North Korea to a car with a broken steering wheel and no brakes careening down a hill. If the situation is so urgent, Seoul should have made proper preparations. However, South Korean politicians continue to duke it out over policies that are pro- or anti-Pyongyang, so emergency policies don’t come easily, not to mention proper diplomatic handling of the North.

So far, Korean politics have dealt with North Korea in predictable ways. The “red complex” has always arisen in election season. However, an editorial in a newspaper had the headline, “The first politician with the juche [self-reliance] philosophy to be elected to the National Assembly?” As the title suggests, the latest political fights over the North Korean issue are more intense than before. Naturally, the appropriate measures Churchill mentioned are not likely to be made.

Consider the actual political environments in Korea and the United States. The Obama administration is taking a different stance from the hard-line North Korean policy of 2009. Washington may not want the North Korean issue to escalate any further during its presidential election season. In Korea, it’s expected that progressive politicians who allegedly support North Korea will be elected to the National Assembly in the April 11 legislative elections.

Ironically, however, the rest of the international community is getting ready to give a good warning to North Korea. At the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, countries shared concerns about the rocket launch by North Korea. That was an outcome of diplomacy at the head-of-state level. Chinese President Hu Jintao’s support was beyond expectations, and he urged Pyongyang to give up the launch plan and focus on its economy. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev pointed out that the launch would be a violation of a UN Security Council resolution. Pyongyang can’t ignore international pressure altogether.

Yet, the pressure doesn’t seem to be sufficient for Pyongyang. Just as President Lee pointed out, it’s not likely that North Korea would give up its nuclear program and halt the rocket launch at this point.

Is there no way to avoid a clash? It’s not yet entirely hopeless. Pyongyang is now comparing Kim Il Sung’s favoring of nuclear disarmament and Kim Jong-il’s legacy of nuclear possession. It is hard to expect complete abandonment of the nuclear program, but the possibility is not zero. Kim Jong-un is in a dilemma, especially in his eagerness to establish political authority in the absence of his father.

Pyongyang seems to have various intentions behind the launch of Kwangmyongsong-3 in mid-April. First of all, Kim Jong-un is expected to be named general secretary of the Workers’ Party at a delegates meeting in April 11. That would signify a completion of the third-generation power succession. Therefore, Kim Jong-un needs the Kwangmyongsong-3 to ensure domestic stability and show off his power internationally.

At the ceremony marking the 100th day after Kim Jong-il’s death on March 25, North Korean Premier Choi Yong-rim said that making North Korea a nuclear power was an accomplishment for the people and praised the nuclear program and the satellite launch as the “revolutionary legacy” of Kim Jong-il.

However, Kim Jong-un has a habit of copying his grandfather Kim Il Sung, from his hairstyle to his policies. Nuclear disarmament of the Korean Peninsula was one of them. But the Kim Jong-un regime has nothing to rely on other than nuclear weapons and missiles.

Therefore, the road to make North Korea give up its nuclear and missile programs will be long and bumpy. We need to be patient. It is questionable if a diplomatic solution that Churchill had hoped for will be possible in the political climate today. As much as the government cares about other countries, it should pay attention to internal affairs, too.
*The author is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

by Chang Dal-joong
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