Taking the helm here at home

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Taking the helm here at home

“The Republic of Korea lives with a nuclear threat right above it, and this - more than anything else - is a very dangerous and abnormal situation,” President Park Geun-hye said in her address this year to mark Liberation Day.

It is a remark that summarizes the Korean government’s attitude emphasizing strong condemnation and stern countermeasures against North Korea’s nuclear arms program. And yet, the North’s nuclear threat grows worse day by day.

Dr. Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear specialist who recently visited the South, predicts that the North will possess about 20 nuclear arms including four uranium warheads by 2016. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency also hinted at the possibility that the North has developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can be mounted on an inter-continental ballistic missile.

We don’t see an immediate exit. The six-party nuclear talks have long been stalled and skepticism about its effectiveness abounds. There is no reason to talk about the North’s lack of cooperation; a rigid approach by the United States has also contributed to the situation worsening. The Barack Obama administration could not escape the trauma of the failed Feb. 29 agreement and insists on a policy of strategic patience. Its position is that without clear assurance of the North’s verifiable denuclearization, it has no intention to resume the six-party talks.

Furthermore, China is showing signs of fatigue. The South Korean government’s outsourcing of diplomacy in the North Korean nuclear crisis - taking advantage of U.S. policy and international pressure on North Korea - also failed to make progress.

In the meantime, the North’s nuclear threats have amplified and the cost to resolve the crisis has grown. Time is not on our side.

So now there’s only one way out. From now on, the South must sit in the driver’s seat in the six-party talks and make clear the priorities. Simultaneously denuclearizing North Korea and addressing the regime’s human rights abuses appear to be difficult at this point. North Korea sees the international community’s concerns toward its rights issues as a threat to the regime, and it has countered this by bolstering its nuclear abilities. That means that we have to make clear domestically and internationally which one of the two is our immediate goal.

After setting our priority, the ball will be in the president’s court. The highest decision maker must personally attend to the North Korean nuclear issues. Let us recall the South Korean government’s situation when it signed the Sept. 19, 2005 joint declaration and the Feb. 13, 2007 agreement. At the time, the president personally addressed pending issues and supported the chief negotiator of the six-party talks, after which agreements were successfully produced.

Above all, the Blue House is the only one in the world that can possibly persuade Washington at this point.

A realistic and pragmatic approach is particularly important in this process. The South Korean government has adopted the stance that it won’t tolerate the North’s two-track policy of pursuing nuclear development and economic growth, and it was the right choice. But if the immediate dismantlement of the country’s nuclear programs is used as a precondition for talks, the North’s nuclear crisis will become a problem impossible to resolve, and eventually a permanent threat to the South.

We must pay attention to the three-stage approach proposed by nuclear scientist Dr. Siegfried Hecker. He proposed that unofficial talks be held first among concerned countries before starting the six-party dialogue. In this unofficial meeting, he said, the concerned parties would persuade the North to stop operating the Yongbyon reactors; allow the inspection of the centrifuges at the Yongbyon complex; impose a moratorium on nuclear testing and missile fire; and report its new light-water reactor. According to Hecker, it will take about three months for Pyongyang to complete these measures.

The second stage will be the formal resumption of the six-party talks, through which its members should agree that the North will suspend nuclear fuel reprocessing; respect safeguard measures; make public the uranium enrichment facility in Yongbyon; report its hidden facilities; and destroy the tunnels built for nuclear testing. Other countries should also promise that they will fire the North’s artificial satellites in return for transparency in all the North’s all missile programs. These agreements should take six months, Hecker proposed.

The third stage, of course, will be dismantling all the plutonium facilities and hidden uranium enrichment facilities and permanently end nuclear and long-range missile tests. This will take one year and six months, Hecker said.

The United States and South Korea have made the complete and irreversible nuclear dismantlement the precondition for talks, and Hecker’s proposal includes many thorny issues that they cannot immediately accept. But it has great value as a starting point to produce more creative ideas.

If the North actually implements just the first and second stages of Hecker’s proposal, we will be able to confirm the North’s commitment to denuclearization. If the situation progresses, President Obama will be able to secure justification to engage the North, just like he did for Cuba. The Park Geun-hye administration must create the conditions for this turnaround.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 22, Page 39

*The author is a political science professor at Yonsei University.

by Moon Chung-in

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