A fatal nuclear dreamIn his final year, President Park Chung Hee seemed to have foreseen his fate. In the summer of 1979, heavy rains poured and the entire country was soaked. The Korea-U.S. summit took place on July 1, and it was the only sunny day that summer.
But then U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who accompanied president Jimmy Carter at the summit, recalled in his memoir that it was the worst-ever meeting. He wrote that Park read a statement refuting the withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Korea for 45 minutes despite U.S. officials’ warning.
The situation was worse during the closed-door summit between the two presidents. Park argued that South Korea has no choice but to resume efforts to arm itself with nuclear arms if Washington pulls out the U.S. troops.
Two days later, a depressed Park invited a longtime associate to the Blue House for a drink. “I think this is perhaps the final chapter of my life,” Park reportedly told his guest. Although the associate tried to calm him down, Park still remained gloomy. “Nuclear weapons are a matter on a completely different level,” Park said. “But wouldn’t it worth risking my life for the country?”
The aide, who assisted him for a long time, remembered that he had never seen Park’s face so depressed. Three months later, Park was assassinated. The relationship between Park’s argument on the nuclear weapons program and the tragedy remains ambiguous. But the aide could not erase his speculation for a long time. “Nuclear arms are a double-edged sword that can also destroy you,” he said.
Three years ago, General Paik Sun-yup contributed a series of his memoirs of the 1950-53 Korean War to the JoongAng Ilbo. In a private meeting, he frankly spoke about what he could not include in the stories that were printed. He said he seriously contemplated for five decades the reason why Kim Il Sung decided to invade the South.
“I have come to just one conclusion,” he said. “If Kim had ever commanded troops large enough of a size of a division, he wouldn’t have begun the war. But he only commanded smaller units in guerilla fights. If he had experienced a larger scale battle, he would have not started the war recklessly.”
Over the past days, the North repeatedly made nuclear threats and I came to remember the two scenes. It is unprecedented that a country that has just conducted nuclear tests declared to exercise its right to nuclear preemptive strikes. The North said it will reduce not only Seoul but also Washington into a sea of fire.
Is the North’s nuclear attack possible? It is not possible commonsensically. The nuclear non-proliferation treaty prevents a nuclear-armed state from using its atomic weapons against a non-nuclear state - in what amounts to an indirect safeguard.
The UN Security Council Resolution 255 also makes clear that should a non-nuclear state is under a nuclear attack, other nuclear-armed states will intervene and retaliate immediately. That’s a proactive safeguard. Therefore, the North will have the most to lose when it presses the button to fire nuclear bombs, because its regime will disappear completely.
Professor Yun Deok-min of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy said the North’s nuclear weapons are aimed at controlling its own people. “The situation is very similar to the year 1993 when Kim Jong-il succeeded the power,” he said. “Starting from the year till March, the North engaged in nuclear brinkmanship by declaring a near-war emergency and leaving the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. When Kim Jong-il became the National Defense Commission chairman in April, things suddenly changed.”
Yun said nuclear arms and missiles are the most effective tool for Kim Jong-un to solidify the regime. He also analyzed that reasons for the North for having escalated tensions should be found internally - not from South Korea or the United States.
And yet, we still have various factors to consider. First, Kim Jong-un, younger than 30, may not make a reasonable judgment due to his lack of experiences. A loudly barking dog does not bite you, but a crazy dog will.
The mood in the international community has also changed. Major media around the world are reporting about the North Korean nuclear crisis everyday. The White House said President Barack Obama is focusing his attention on the nuclear issues. China also barred North Korean banks’ illegal operations in China - a notable departure from the past.
If it were the North’s intention, it sure succeeded in attracting the international attentions. But the situation also changed radically that some now say that the only fundamental resolution is the regime change in the North.
We have not many options. We must strengthen the Korea-U.S. alliance to keep the nuclear umbrella intact and bolster our strategic partnership with China. We must make China seriously think about whether the North is its asset or burden.
North Korea is the only country that developed nuclear weapons and threatened to use it since the nuclear non-proliferation treaty took effect in 1970. North Korea is at a crossroads whether its last nuclear blackmailing will succeed or whether it will eventually collapse.
Nuclear arsenals are a double-edged sword with a fatal temptation. Over the past 40 years, almost all the leaders of the countries that attempted nuclear development faced tragic ends in terrorist attacks or assassinations. The North is probably encouraging its destruction by holding onto its nuclear dream.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho