Time is running out
Whether you want to admit it or not, it is apparent that North Korea has already become the second nation in Northeast Asia to acquire nuclear weapons.
In the summer of 1989, when North Korea’s nuclear project suddenly came to light through satellite photographs taken over the Yongbyon nuclear complex, a provincial town north of Pyongyang, many North Korea watchers contended that the Communist regime had not embarked on a program to produce a nuclear weapon. But it was a moment of truth in North Korea’s clandestine bomb-making and the South Korean political elites’ worst nightmare.
There had been two main concerns over the Communist regime developing a nuclear weapons program. First, the program would have enabled the North to inflict significant casualty on South Koreans and U.S. forces stationed there in the event of a second Korean War. If the North made a sudden attack across the border, just 30 miles from Seoul, it would do irreversible damage.
Second, it was commonly interpreted that the secretive state would use its nuclear weapons as a means of coercive diplomacy against the United States in Northeast Asia via blackmail and brinkmanship. In short, North Korea views nuclear weapons as a strategic equalizer against the superiority of U.S. forces.
Most recently, General Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, revealed that North Korea has the capability to miniaturize nuclear warheads, although he later clarified that the assessment was based on his personal opinion rather than on hard evidence. In the immediate future, as in the immediate past, North Korea will stand on the threshold of launching a more advanced missile with a nuclear warhead.
Along with nuclear tests in 2006, and again in 2009 and 2013, however, the top general’s remarks demonstrated that even in the shadow of famine and disease, North Korea has made an indomitable and ultimately successful effort to acquire nuclear weapons in its own way. History shows that Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Communist regime, considered Khrushchev’s withdrawal of nuclear missiles from Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis as evidence that the Soviet Union’s nuclear umbrella could not be trusted as an instrument of deterrence. Furthermore, China and the Soviet’s unexpected diplomatic relations with South Korea reinforced Kim’s mistrust against his allies.
For the Communist regime, secrecy, denial and vagueness are no longer needed. It is correct to say that North Korea has already made a firm decision to advance its nuclear weapons, either for use as a deterrence against the United States or to be exported to some states in the Middle East that have nuclear ambitions.
There is some justification to the demands of South Korean hardliners, who are urging Washington to define proliferation only as nuclearization by hostile states and allow its allies to pursue nuclear power as they see fit. It is certain that there is an asymmetry of perception toward the nuclear North between South Korea and the United States: To South Koreans, the North’s possession of nuclear weapons signals a real danger that may end the future of the Korean Peninsula itself, whereas, to the unreflective Washington foreign-policy establishment, Pyongyang’s growing arsenal of nuclear weapons is but a tiny factor in the shaping of America’s global strategies. In short, Washington does nothing except insist that the denuclearization of North Korea must happen. Doubts about America’s rhetoric therefore stir unease.
Although it is argued that there may be little hope for significant progress to forge a North Korea policy for his final two years in office under the Republican-controlled Senate and its House majority, the Obama administration must overcome its reluctance to make audacious political and diplomatic gestures at home and abroad in the resolution of the North Korea problem, instead of insisting on its failed “strategic patience.” Clearly, the strategic patience cannot stop die-hard nuclear ambitions.
The assertion that the United States does not have much leverage against North Korea is wrong. The Communist regime is highly likely to scale back its nuclear weapons program if diplomatic normalization between it and the United States is achieved on the condition of the North’s complete denuclearization. That is by no means a long-term strategic goal. Back in September 2005, for instance, relations between the United States and North Korea reached their height of cordiality. As a result, South Korean public opinion, and most of the press, seemed happy that the intransigent North Korea had agreed to end its nuclear weapons program in return for security, economic and energy benefits, potentially easing tensions with the United States.
Time is running out for the kind of diplomacy the United States can pursue. Obama should make fresh efforts to work toward North Korea, despite deep frustration that led him to take a hostile stance following the North’s nuclear tests during his presidency. Given that the recent successful secret mission to free Americans imprisoned in the North was made by director of national intelligence for the U.S., James R. Clapper Jr. rather than “freelance diplomats” such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Richardson, it is easy to predict that the deadlock could be broken.
The winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize should test North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s intentions again, making it clear that there is a negotiating table awaiting not only in the Iran matter but in terms of the North, too. Obama needs to be open to the possibility that there could be dialogue that results in something meaningful. Both Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have long been staunch proponents of direct bilateral talks with Pyongyang.
If North Korea stays on its present course in the wake of the U.S. diplomatic failure, the peninsula will devolve into instability that could easily explode into a full-blown disaster. Northeast Asia, China included, will face an unpalatable reality: living with a North Korea that may have produced several bombs’ worth of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, and with South Korea not far behind in its own pursuit of nuclear arms.
*The author is director for Nonproliferation Centre at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation.
by Lee Byong-chul