Time is not on the North’s side

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Time is not on the North’s side

Perhaps because of the complete darkness drawn over Sinuiju, the North Korean city seemed especially gloomy from a skyscraper proudly standing in Dandong, China. I was reminded of what I had seen in the North over 20 years ago.

From 1996 to 1999, I visited North Korea seven times on business trips to provide a light-water reactor in the North. The construction site was in Kumho District in South Hamgyong Province, and the meetings were held at a guesthouse on Mount Myohyang. The 130 kilometer-long (80 mile-long) highway between Pyongyang and Mount Myohyang was one of the few highways in North Korea.

On the way back, I travelled along the 140 kilometer-long highway between Beijing and Tianjin, also one of the most notable highways in China at the time. Twenty years later, highway systems in North Korea haven’t changed much, but in China, over 100,000 kilometers of highways and 16,000 kilometers of high-speed railways have been constructed.

How can we explain this discrepancy on two sides of a river? Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Daron Acemoglu argued in “Why Nations Fail” that the fate of a nation is determined not by the climate, geography or diseases, but by the political and economic systems. But in agreeing with professor Acemoglu’s claims, I’m pained to think about the suffering of North Korea’s residents.

North Korea had staked its fate on nuclear development and seems to believe that it was the best possible option. After witnessing Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and the Ukraine crisis, North Korea may feel that they made a right choice. However, the tragedies of the three countries were not because they gave up nuclear development or conceded nuclear weapons to another power. Just like Professor Acemoglu pointed out, they failed because they didn’t make a proper nation.

North Korea seems to firmly believe that once it develops an intercontinental ballistic missile and proves that it can attack the United States, Washington would come to the negotiation table. Pyongyang would ceaselessly pursue extending the ranges of its nuclear weapons, making nuclear warheads smaller and experimenting with atmospheric re-entry. Lately, North Korea obsesses over the development of various nuclear trials, including the submarine-launched ballistic missile-related tests.

When will North Korea realize that obsessing over its nuclear program will eliminate its chances to benefit from the international community? After Vietnam reconciled with the international community in 1993, it received over $500 billion in assistance from the World Bank and the Asia Development Bank.

But North Korea has been shut off from the world for too long. It may not be possible to escape from isolation on its own. Therefore, the international community needs to assure the North that it can gain more by giving up the nuclear program and offer a means of negotiation where North Korea can express what it wants. Also, considering the chronic fatigue over the nuclear issue that the United States and China have, the time has come for Korea to take the initiative.

Time is not on North Korea’s side any more. The recent nuclear resolution of Iran will empower international cooperation and United Nations Security Council sanctions. North Korea must not neglect the reality that nonproliferation is the international norm. In the United Nations visit and state visit to the United States by Chinese President Xi Jinping in September and the COP 21 meeting in Paris in December, the United States and China will seek a new relationship.

The reconciliatory mode has already started in the course of the Iran nuclear deal and is likely to continue at least until September 2016, when China hosts the G20 summit. If the United States and China narrow differences over North Korea’s nuclear issue, then North Korea will no longer take advantage of a free ride on the six-party talks and will be at the center of international criticism.

We are celebrating the 70th anniversary of liberation from Japanese occupation. But Korea did not win liberation on its own, so the true meaning of independence could only be remembered when we poignantly ruminate over why Korea had lost sovereignty. Korea’s division and North Korea’s nuclear threat are the catastrophes of the international community today, and once they are resolved, Korea can celebrate liberation at a new level.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

*The author is a former Korean Ambassador to the United Nations and president of the Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies.

by Park In-kook
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