The knot of war

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The knot of war

In October 1962, a world strained by the cold war came as close as it would get to nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wrote to his U.S. counterpart John F. Kennedy with a proposal to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba if Kennedy would publicly promise never to invade Cuba. “You and I should not now pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied a knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter the knot will become,” he wrote in a letter. “And a time may come when this knot is tied so tight that the person who tied it is no longer capable of untying it, and then the knot will have to be cut. What that would mean I need not explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly what dreaded forces our two countries possess.”

Khrushchev’s fear of “an act of aggression which pushes mankind toward the abyss of a world of nuclear-missile war” is panning out on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea threatened it could take aggressive steps beyond its pledged third nuclear test following “hostile” sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council in response to its successful long-range rocket launch in December, which it claimed to be a peaceful space enterprise.

If North Korea follows through with its threats, the UN Security Council inevitably would have to come up with additional sanctions to contain its military activities. North Korea warns that it could take this as an ultimatum. Pyongyang is pulling the rope against the rest of the world. The situation could develop into a catastrophe where no one will be able to undo what’s done.

The North Korean conundrum won’t be solved even if the other side doesn’t respond with quid pro quos. What can be tried is to deter the recalcitrant regime from detonating the nuclear device for now to keep the situation’s status quo, which is already alarming enough. But for now, sustaining the status quo is the best we can do. North Korea’s third nuclear test would put regional security in a new level of confrontation. It is suspected that this time Pyongyang will conduct a nuclear test with enriched weapons-grade uranium, which will allow small nuclear warheads to be put on long-range missiles. In the past two tests in 2006 and 2009, it was believed to have used plutonium-based weapons.

Many experts on Korean affairs predicted that the year 2013 could be a turning point in the inter-Korean stalemate with new governments launched in the U.S., South Korea and China. North Korea’s younger leader has only been on the throne in Pyongyang for a year. Washington sought opportunities to renew dialogue with Pyongyang and South Korea’s president-elect Park Geun-hye pledged a two-track policy with the North - resuming humanitarian aid and dialogue while also keeping a no-tolerance stance regarding North Korea’s nuclear program.

These hopes, however, were dashed even before Park’s inauguration. What can be done now to loosen the tightened knot of war? Experts are floating three possible responses.

One is to give up on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear facilities and instead concentrate on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. That is a more practical alternative to the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of nuclear activity the U.S. and South Korea demanded in return for financial aid, loans and security guarantees.

Second, Seoul could mull joining the U.S. ballistic missile defense program to build a multi-layered defense system against the North Korean nuclear threat.

The third option is to arm ourselves with nuclear weapons and create a “balance of terror” to deter North Korea from using its atomic bombs.

These ideas are based on a sense of concession of nuclear arms for North Korea that goes against the policies of both Seoul and Washington that maintain no tolerance for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

President-elect Park highly prizes the idea of keeping her promises. How she plans to follow through on her campaign platform on North Korea remains unclear. If a military response is crossed out, she inevitably has to choose the best possible means of diplomacy. The carrot-and-stick mix proved unproductive in the past. But we have repeatedly seen that North Korea does not waver in the face of threats, nor does it change without provocation.

A diplomatic strategy does not aim to corner North Korea. It aims for peace through persuasion and promises. We can offer guarantees of the regime’s security and economic assistance to draw North Korea to the diplomatic tables and direct the country down the path of denuclearization.

It won’t be easy. It will require a great deal of self-control, boldness, imagination and patience. We need to reset our mindsets strategically in order not to be led by emotions. Visiting former U.S. defense secretary William Perry and nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker in a recent forum advised South Koreans to approach the nuclear crisis in a broad context. Park needs to redraw her policy on the North in a broad context before she embarks on the trust-building process she promised during the campaign.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

by Chang Dal-joong

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