After Syria comes North KoreaRussia, by taking on the role of mediator, saved face for the United States and helped prevent military action in Syria by coming up with a peaceful solution for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons and possibly ending the two-and-half-year civil war. After reaching the landmark deal in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed gratitude four times during the joint press conference on Saturday.
U.S. President Barack Obama had declared Syria had crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons against its own citizens, then tried to marshal allies for a military intervention to punish President Bashar al-Assad and his military. But key allies of the United States backed out, and the U.S. Congress was largely opposed to another costly military intervention in the Middle East. Washington could have lost its reputation and credibility if Russia had not offered a breakthrough. Under the ambitious arms control program, Syria would have to remove and destroy all chemical weapons in its arsenal by the middle of next year, without costing any blood from Western societies.
After three days of marathon talks, the United States and Russia reached an agreement on an effective and speedy framework to get rid of the chemical weapons. The Assad regime must deliver an inventory and details on its chemical weapons stockpile within a week and must destroy and remove all components of its chemical weapons program by mid-2014. Otherwise, Syria will face serious consequences, including action by the United Nations Security Council.
Under the path laid out by the United States and Russia, Syria must provide a “comprehensive listing” of its chemical stocks and equipment - the complete details of the type, name, number, location, production and development facilities - and hand it over to the United Nations by this weekend. It must allow “immediate and unfettered” access to chemical weapons sites by international inspectors in November. It has less than a year to get rid of weapons, equipment and production facilities in a transparent and verifiable manner.
Non-compliance by the Assad government or any other party would be referred to the 15-nation UN Security Council by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which will seek a resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter to authorize both the use of military force and other sanctions. The process is a rare fast-track and sweeping deal.
Russia was able to sell its diplomatic solution because the leaders of the three nations all desperately needed it. Despite its strong words to take action against Syria, Obama’s hands were tied by opposition at home against military action. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin also took advantage of Obama’s dilemma to extend Russia’s traditional influence in the Middle East. Assad, who no longer can use his chemical weapons in combat, might as well employ them to defer U.S. bombardments and buy time against rebel forces.
The exit to Syria’s chemical weapons crisis is diverting attention from North Korea and Iran, countries that also possess the dangerous stockpiles and remain outside of international inspections. The same formula could be applied to them. Some already hail the Syria plan as a feasible solution to dismantling chemical and nuclear weapons in North Korea. But North Korea and Iran are different from Syria. The military regime of Syria used chemical weapons against its own citizens, to wipe out rebel forces during a civil war. When the United States readied punitive military action, Syria’s ally Russia stepped in. The United States for now does not have the justification to pressure North Korea or Iran.
But nuclear development in North Korea and Iran is too serious to wait for international society to build a consensus on the need for action. North Korea is most urgent. It has already conducted a third nuclear test. South Korean and U.S. military authorities believe North Korea is nearly able to weaponize nuclear warheads capable of fitting on rockets and missiles. North Korea is believed to have revived its nuclear development activities, as it declared in April. U.S. satellite pictures showed smoke venting out of test reactors in Yongbyon, suggesting North Korea has reactivated the facility capable of producing plutonium weapons.
Washington maintains that it cannot renew talks with Pyongyang unless the North demonstrates a will to denuclearize. North Korea’s nuclear programs are now at the bottom of Washington’s foreign agenda, on the watch list rather than the to-do list. Some suspect Washington may be using the status quo on North Korean nuclear weapons as leverage to contain China.
Inter-Korean relations have thawed for the first time in many years. South Korea’s national flag was raised and its anthem played in an international sports competition in Pyongyang. The Kaesong Industrial Complex has reopened. Reunions of separated families will also be resumed.
All these developments would come to a full stop if North Korea carried out another nuclear test. President Park Geun-hye’s trust-building process would flop. South Korea would be forever a hostage to North Korea’s nuclear program. We cannot stand around and wait for Washington to shake out of its wait-and-see, hands-off policy on North Korea. It is time for Seoul to draw Washington’s attention from the Middle East to North Korea.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Bae Myung-bok