Two nuclear dramas
Oh Won-cheol stood in the back row at the ceremony marking the 35th anniversary of the death of Park Chung Hee at the Seoul National Cemetery. “Korea was a developing country back then, but Park directed creation of an industrial base focused on heavy industry and chemicals to become an advanced economy, and he invested in the defense industry,” said speaker Kim Hong-rae, president of the Korea Retired Generals and Admirals Association.
Oh was one of Park’s key aides as second senior secretary for economy at the Blue House. Asked about his feelings on the occasion, Oh responded, “I live near this cemetery, so I come to his grave often.” It was a simple answer with a deep meaning, reflecting the era of Park Chung Hee.
In that era, science and patriotism were paired to create a dramatic history. The beginning of the drama was recruiting talented people from overseas and the theme was self-defense and technological independence. Park wrote letters to scientists in his own hand. Many of them were considered the candidates for Nobel prizes. The theme of self-defense of their homeland touched their emotions, and the theme of technological independence motivated them with passionate patriotism.
Kim Wan-hee is known as the father of the Korean electronics industry. He returned to Korea in 1967, leaving his family behind in the United States. The president’s letters addressed his situation carefully. “Although you are living in your homeland, you probably feel like you are in a foreign country,” Park wrote. The president and scientist exchanged 130 letters over 12 years.
The drama of science has a thrilling moment ? the development of a guided missile. In September 1978, Korea successfully launched the Baekgom guided missile, opening a new chapter for the country. “At that historic moment, the researchers all hugged each other and shed tears,” recalled Hong Jae-hak, former head of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute.
The drama also had a history of developing nuclear arms. Oh kept that secret. He is 86 years old, but his memories remain vivid, though he did not discuss the full story. “Korea managed to see some progress in its technology to develop nuclear weapons,” he said.
In the late 1970s, Korea’s nuclear ambitions were behind the conflict with the United States, and Washington used all its influence to stop Park’s plan.
Science and technology are a space for leadership. Nuclear weapons, missiles and artificial satellites are produced through leadership, symbols of a leader’s determination and a country’s capabilities.
In July, Jon Pyong-ho, who had been the Workers’ Party secretary in charge of arms procurement in North Korea, died at the age of 88. He received a state funeral, with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un heading the delegation.
Jon was the best-known face of the North’s nuclear arms program. The nuclear development started under Kim Il Sung era and continued through Kim Jong-il’s reign. The North received technology from AQ Khan, the man behind Pakistan’s nuclear program. While Khan played a decisive role in the dramatic turnaround of North Korea, the obsessions and passions of the country’s leaders were in the background.
Jon’s funeral reminded me of the funeral of China’s Qian Xuesen, which was attended by then-President Hu Jintao and former President Jiang Zemin.
In 1955, then-Chinese President Mao Zedong brought Qian back to the country in exchange for the repatriation of American pilots captured during the Korean War. He then led China’s development of atomic and hydrogen bombs and satellites. It was an achievement accomplished through the combination of the leadership and science.
Oct. 21 marked the 20th anniversary of the Geneva agreement between North Korea and the United States. Robert Galluchi, who had been chief negotiator for Washington, made a very sad confession. At the time, the United States didn’t know about North Korea and it still doesn’t know about the country, he said. And it makes us feel perplexed.
U.S. policy toward the North’s nuclear arms program has failed. Policy makers were insensitive to the Kim family’s nuclear ambition. They also underestimated the North’s capability in science. The North used that opportunity and improved its nuclear technologies. Most South Korean experts also were ignorant, but the North has a long history of science and technology. Although its economic hardship hinders sceientific and technical development and Kim Jong-un’s leadership is ambiguous, the country’s tradition of science and technology survives, as shown in the work of chemist Ri Sung-gi, who invented Vinalon.
Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, recently said the North has the technology to miniaturize its nuclear warheads, and he believes the North is capable of mounting an atomic warhead on a missile. This means the North has secured the “One Ring.” A country armed with nuclear missiles has a different status. It will no longer be treated as an impoverished country.
Nuclear arms are weapons of threats and mutual destruction. The economic packages they will be receiving will no longer be aid. They will be gifts to please them. The North has learned the beauty of its nuclear arms program, and it will never give it up. The North’s nuclear achievement is the reason behind the recent decision to delay the U.S. handover of the wartime operational control of the Korean troops to South Korea. The transfer would complete the self-defense of Korea, but it can only be achieved with a tangible thing: defense capabilities based on science and technology.
In the 1970s, science and patriotism were paired and the combination’s drama was self-defense. We have to redefine this drama.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 30, Page 35
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.