Why the changed nuclear stance?South Korean and U.S. military officials have agreed that North Korea’s nuclear arms capabilities are now a real threat, said South Korea’s defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin. That is a major shift in Seoul’s assessment of the North Korean nuclear program; it remained skeptical even after Pyongyang’s third nuclear test earlier in the year. In April, the defense minister said at the National Assembly that North Korea is still incapable of developing nuclear warheads that could fit into long-range missiles. Seoul and Washington shared the revised opinion of the threat during the Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue in Seoul in July. Security strategy and readiness have to be reinforced based on the new judgment of the North Korean nuclear arms program.
Kim told the Assembly’s defense committee on Tuesday that “North Korea’s nuclear program remained at a developmental and experimental stage until 2010, but it has grown into a real threat in 2013, and is now capable of making and using nuclear arms at any time.” He added that the recent change in attitude by China toward North Korea also underscored the gravity of North Korea’s nuclear arms development.
Kim may have stepped up the alert on the North Korean nuclear threat to explain why Seoul asked Washington to extend the timetable for the transition of wartime operation control, scheduled for December 2015. But that urgency cannot fully explain why the defense ministry suddenly concluded that Pyongyang’s nuclear capacity has reached the deployment level just a few months after it said it was still at an experimental stage.
Seoul and Washington have not worked aggressively to lure North Korea back to the six-party talks on denuclearization. They both have demanded that Pyongyang first show sincerity by accepting International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. Both believed they could rein in North Korean nuclear development through international oversight, judging that North Korea was yet to weaponize its nuclear technology.
Our policy on North Korea’s nuclear program must change immediately if the North is capable of loading nuclear warheads on a missile. Along with aggressive diplomacy, Seoul must accelerate steps to establish systems to knock down the North’s missiles. The government must clearly explain how it arrived at the new assessment of the North’s nuclear program, as well as describe the measures it plans to take. It cannot ease the public jitters merely through a delay in transfer of wartime operational control.