Failed North Korean policy
“The Saga of History,” a North Korean novel that fictionalizes the reclusive country’s first nuclear crisis in the early 1990s, features Kim Jong-il as the protagonist of the story and Mun Son-kyu as the first vice foreign minister. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci appears in the book under his real name, while Mun’s character is actually based on Kang Sok-ju, now the Workers’ Party secretary for international affairs.
On the 20th anniversary of the Geneva Agreement, a framework in which North Korea agreed to freeze and dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for two light water reactors for power, a scene from the novel seems significant.
Kang tells Gallucci, “The more you roll a snowball, the bigger it grows.”
This ominous remark has became a reality today. North Korea’s nuclear issue has become overblown, both physically and psychologically. As of last year, it was estimated that North Korea had 10 to 30 nuclear weapons, according to the Military Balance. By 2016, it was estimated to have as many as 48. North Korea has institutionalized its status as a nuclear power.
In a constitutional revision two years ago, the preface included the term “nuclear state.” Last year, Pyongyang chose to simultaneously pursue economic development and nuclear armament, and created laws to reinforce nuclear weapons possession and use.
North Korean military authorities became bolder. The attack on the Cheonan naval corvette and the bombing of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, as well as its frequent threats and provocations over the past two years, may be based on Pyongyang’s confidence in its nuclear capability. It’s a grave problem, but fatigue over this threat is spreading. Pyongyang’s nuclear program is growing, while the international community and North Korea are dissonant.
North Korea’s nuclear augmentation is the result of two factors. The first is North Korea’s worship of nuclear weaponry. It chose nuclear armament over nuclear energy, and it changed the fates of North and South Korea. The engine of South Korea’s industrial advancement was nuclear energy. While North Korea holds what it calls “a precious sword,” that choice actually led to international sanctions, and it had to suffer from two lost decades in economic development.
Nevertheless, North Korea pursued nuclear armament and prioritized that system. Internally, the nuclear program maintains the Kim dynasty’s absolute power and is also a card that makes up for its relative inferiority to the South.
Failed diplomatic relations with its neighbors also contributed to North Korea’s nuclear obsession. The country was in a unique situation when it challenged nuclear development. The United States is the first and biggest nuclear power, and Russia is the second largest. China has also become part of this nuclear monopoly. Japan was the first victim of a nuclear attack, and Korea’s nuclear ambition was frustrated by the United States. Korea and Japan are under the nuclear umbrella of the United States. North Korea made a belated entry into the game, and its justification was Washington’s hostile policy.
Pyongyang’s rhetoric hasn’t changed. Kang Sok-ju’s acknowledgement in 2002 of its highly enriched uranium program was the turning point. The Geneva Agreement was transgressed instead of being revised or supplemented, and the brake on North Korea’s nuclear ambition was broken. Blockades, intervention, talks, pressures, incentives and sanctions had no effect.
In the meantime, the six-party talks died away. The strategic patience of the Obama Administration may end up as mere patience. North Korea is a self-reliant economy. It’s different from Iran, which is entangled with a global economy. China’s role is running out and it opposes North Korea’s collapse more than nuclear development.
However, we cannot give up intolerance and the nonproliferation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The international community intervention in the Korean Peninsula and the security dilemma will only grow. Now, the time has come for Korea to take initiative to draw a new framework for a resolution. The premise should be the realistic understanding that Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear program easily. We need step-by-step, long-term plans. Freezing the nuclear program would be a start.
American physicist Dr. Siegfried Hecker proposed three no’s: No more bombs, no better bombs and no exports. The first objective is to freeze plutonium and highly enriched uranium production. Also, North Korea should stop nuclear tests and long-range missile launches.
A nuclear resolution should be integrated with the peace process on the Korean Peninsula. Just in time, a channel between the Blue House and the National Defense Commission was established - the perfect window of opportunity.
The lesson from the nuclear diplomacy of the past two decades is that time is not on our, but on North Korea’s side. We need to lower our expectations and progress step by step. What is realistic is reasonable, and what is reasonable is realistic.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 23, Page 32
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Oh Young-hwan