Balancing deterrence, peacemakingKim Jong-un’s recent maneuvers in Pyongyang, however disturbing they are, still have an unintended comic side. Threats to attack Austin, Texas - perhaps because it’s near the ranch of George W. (“Axis of Evil”) Bush? - and a visit by an aging former U.S. basketball star - known as much for his tattoos and Technicolor hair as his rebounding skills - make observers smile despite the tension in the air.
But no one is smiling, least of all the Chinese, over movements of missiles to the east coast, threats to restart a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon or the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. As he watches the Americans build up their missile defenses and other military capabilities near China’s doorstep, President Xi Jinping said on Sunday that no single country should try to create “chaos for selfish gain.” He left no doubt when he was referring to North Korea.
Clearly, there is a strong element of publicity-seeking in Pyongyang’s drumbeat of bellicose pronouncements. Being ignored is the worst sanction of all, its leaders seem to believe, and they seem either willing to accept the risk of ridicule or are oblivious to it. Even more important is that rhetoric’s domestic component; it is an attempt to rally the nation and the leadership class to young Kim, who has probably not yet consolidated his power completely.
Here in South Korea, the North’s leaders have gotten our attention, but not in the way they would have wished. Recent opinion polls suggest that more than 60 percent of us believe we should arm ourselves with nuclear weapons to counter the threat. Korea has joined the United States in demonstrating its ability to respond to any armed provocation.
North Korea still seems convinced that its nuclear weapons are the key to obtaining the respect and security it wants. I have become more pessimistic about the prospects for a negotiated settlement of the nuclear issue, although I believe the six-party talks or similar negotiations remain very important. Even if only to confirm that we prefer talks to confrontation, we have to keep the door open, no matter how much the North Korean leadership tries our patience. President Park Geun-hye’s trust politik is in line with that principle.
We must remember that even if the North Korean leadership is aggressive and willing to take huge risks, it is not irrational. Kim Jong-un heads a cruel and despotic leadership created by his grandfather, and preserving his demi-god status for the benefit of his dynasty and its loyalists is his main goal.
For that reason among others, DPRK-watchers generally agree that while Pyongyang works hard to develop missiles and nuclear weapons, its leaders have no illusions about surviving a serious attempt to use those weapons. And in the battle to sway public opinion in the South, North Korea dismays its potential allies on the left by undercutting their arguments for accommodation. Pyongyang also constantly tests the fine line where Seoul and Washington’s increased willingness to respond militarily to a provocation would combine with a Chinese refusal to support the North’s regime any further.
But I cannot agree with those who see the current situation as a reason for Seoul to develop its own nuclear weapons. The Soviet-American standoff of the mutually assured destruction era saw several flashpoints when nuclear war seemed all too probable; the same danger of miscalculation or miscommunication or accident awaits any nuclear-armed state. It is that horrifying possibility that drives the pressure for a global ban on such weapons. What some South Koreans see as a worrying asymmetry in military capabilities is an illusion: nuclear weapons are terror weapons, and we have the capability to subdue the North, if necessary, without resorting to terror.
Second, concern about the reliability of our U.S. ally is persistent here, but overblown, especially when the threats from North Korea are also aimed at the U.S. homeland.
And finally, South Korean attempts to develop nuclear weapons would surely trigger similar efforts in Japan and perhaps even in places such as Taiwan, dismaying China and giving the region perhaps three new nuclear-armed states with a history of mutual antagonism and no experience in strategic nuclear policy doctrine to manage them. This is not, in my mind, a recipe for a more stable region.
North Korea’s announcement that it has abrogated the 1953 armistice agreement is another prod at not only Seoul and Washington, but at Beijing as well. China’s entire North Korea policy is based on the preservation of the status quo until conditions are right to settle all the outstanding issues peacefully and to China’s benefit.
The armistice is a large part of the status quo, and the North has just renounced a major pillar of the stability China wants to preserve. When Pyongyang rejects the armistice, promises to never give up its nuclear weapons and announces its willingness to attack its “enemies,” it attacks the core of China’s policy.
Seoul has responded very prudently to the new round of North Korean saber-rattling. While strengthening its deterrence, it has joined the rest of the world community in brushing aside Pyongyang’s threats and taking collective measures through the United Nations. President Park says the door to negotiations with North Korea - her trust politik - is still open. That is a good balance of deterrence and peacemaking.
*The author is former UN ambassador and distinguished professor at Korea University.
by Park Soo-gil