Before Pyongyang pushes the button

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Before Pyongyang pushes the button

The shockwaves of Kwangmyongsong-3 launch are shaking the entire world. Foreign press reported that North Korea’s rocket that is yet to launch hijacked the agenda of the Nuclear Security Summit held in Seoul last week. The international community is urging Pyongyang to suspend the launch plan in unison, but the possibility is very slim. Pyongyang is not likely to give in to the external pressure and halt the grand event to publicize and celebrate Kim Jong-un’s coronation on the centennial of Kim Il Sung’s birthday.

Then how should we respond to this move? The JoongAng Ilbo’s editorial writer Bae Myung-bok’s March 29 column titled “Ignoring Pyongyang’s Threat” hits the mark. “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.” He certainly has a point, but it is questionable whether this approach could be a solution at this point.

If the launch actually happens, the international community would punish it with a UN Security Council statement. Then, North Korea is likely to respond sensitively, resuming the uranium enrichment activities and refusing the visit of IAEA inspectors by nullifying the agreement with the United States signed on Feb. 29. At the same time, Pyongyang may go on with its third nuclear test, and the possibility of resuming the operation of the plutonium reprocessing facility that had been frozen according to the Feb. 13 agreement cannot be ruled out. In short, it will most likely repeat the steps it had followed since April 2009.

Against the provocation of North Korea, South Korea is left with two options. One is to cooperate with its neighbors and the United States to strengthen the economic sanctions against North Korea. The other is to reinforce the Korea-U.S. alliance through augmentation of the U.S. forces in Korea and actively participate in the establishment of the U.S.-led missile defense system in the region.

However, the situation is not necessarily advantageous to Seoul. Above all, the effect of the sanctions is questionable. It is unclear whether China will take part in the sanctions actively, and even if it does, it is doubtful if Pyongyang will yield to the pressure as it is accustomed to suffering. A bigger problem is that North Korea will build up nuclear capacity and missile capability day by day, and as a result, the military tension will escalate and a new cold war structure will take shape on the Korean Peninsula. In other words, time is hardly on our side in the vicious cycle of crime and punishment.

Let’s look at the situation calmly. The most urgent action needed to minimize the ballistic missile threat is to prevent the loading of a nuclear warhead. The Feb. 29 agreement is significant because it can control the uranium and plutonium enrichment and prevent additional production and test of nuclear warheads.

We may also want to take the moment to review the outcomes of the retaliatory diplomacy. When a tourist was killed in Mount Kumgang in 2008, when North Korea went on with a missile launch and the second nuclear experiment in 2009, and when the North attacked our warship Cheonan and bombarded Yeonpyeong Island, the Korean government responded with a strong retaliatory tone to little avail. If we acknowledge the lesson that the North Korean issue cannot be solved with retaliatory diplomacy, we need to do something before Pyongyang presses the launch button instead of waiting for a full-blown crisis.

In the nick of time, an obvious card is for Washington to send a high-ranking envoy to Pyongyang and address the missile issue separate from the six-party talks. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and U.S. Coordinator for Iran and North Korea Sanctions Robert Einhorn have participated in the missile negotiation with North Korea, and they know better than anyone that such talk is not entirely reckless.

Again, there is more to diplomacy than punishment: showing a will to retaliate but at the same time paving a way of prevention through dialogue and negotiation would be the best plan.
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