Needed: An exit strategyThe sense of crisis on the Korean Peninsula is deepening with North Korea threatening to start a war any day now. Tensions on the heavily-fortified border and North Korea’s saber-rattling are ever-escalating with a warlike state showing signs of becoming fixed. In a recent parliamentary meeting, North Korea officially adopted nuclear armaments and a strong economy as its two top national priorities. Its declaration that it would enhance its nuclear arsenal accentuates its hostile stance against the United States and its heightened military threat against South Korea.
So what are Pyongyang’s real intentions by publicly declaring national goals of strengthening its economy and nuclear arsenal while provoking the U.S. and South Korea? The bottom line in the North’s change in strategic line is the country’s impoverished economy and its desperation to revive it. The regime acts brazenly with nuclear armaments because nuclear weapons are an affordable and effective security strategy that does not cost any extra military expenditures.
The new strategy proclaimed by Kim Jong-un should be understood differently from the balanced economy-military pursuit of his grandfather in the 1960s and his father’s military-first policy while developing farming and light industry. In earlier generations, North Korea spent most of its resources and finances to build its military. With nuclear arms as a lever, however, it does not need to spend greatly on defense and instead can use whatever resources left to restore its economy. On the facade, it is flaunting nuclear weapons to the world. But at the same time, it shows how desperate North Korea is to get out of its impoverished state.
The Supreme People’s Assembly has reinstated former premier Pak Pong-ju, who was sacked from the post in 2007 after a backlash against his market reforms and privatization campaign. His return underscores Pyongyang’s commitment to economic revival and development.
North Korea’s declaration of itself as a nuclear weapons state is its leverage to ensure security against the U.S in a confrontational phase. In a negotiation phase, however, the North has called for a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang has been demanding from the U.S. a peace treaty in return for its surrender of nuclear weapons since 2005. The joint declaration following landmark six-party talks in Sept. 19, 2005 stipulates the goal of denuclearization of the peninsula as well as a permanent peace regime. Even after the six-party talks and bilateral negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington petered out, the North reiterated its pursuit of denuclearization and a peace regime in a foreign ministry statement on Jan. 11, 2010. It has consistently argued for a permanent peace treaty to ensure the safety and security of the regime so that it can focus on its economy.
In short, North Korea wants security guarantees as a precondition for rebuilding its economy. It is brandishing its nuclear weaponry on one hand and suggesting peace on the other for the purpose of that goal. Its warlike rhetoric and threats to Washington and Seoul come down to the same motivation. It employs the brinkmanship of escalating tensions to a near warlike state to underscore the vulnerability of the armistice, justifying the cause of its replacement with a lasting peace arrangement. North Korea will therefore go on building nuclear weapons and raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula until it gets what it wants. We might have to get used to constant and persistent saber-rattling.
Since North Korea is after a lasting peace regime to revive its economy by escalating tensions, we won’t be able to solve anything if we respond to its threat and provocations with defense countermeasures and a security approach. North Korea wants to draw military actions from South Korea and the U.S. to serve its goal of heightening tensions on the peninsula.
We may not want to admit it, but the North is leading this game. It will likely continue with provocations and we would have to live in constant threat and fear of war. Under the circumstances, we are the biggest loser on the Korean Peninsula. That’s why we must proactively seek an exit strategy from such a state.
Seoul must come up with an exit strategy and fly to Washington, Beijing and Pyongyang to persuade, negotiate and pressure with patience and persistence. The harder we work on it, the bigger our voice will be in solving the matter. The exit strategy hinges on our aggressive efforts to establish a peace mechanism for this land. If a guarantee of security and a peace regime to build its economy is what North Korea wants, we should take the initiative. We have to shake off our self-inflicted taboo on discussions of a peace treaty. President Park Geun-hye must pack an inventive exit strategy in her briefcase before she boards the plane to visit President Barack Obama in Washington in May.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University.
by Kim Geun-shik