Practical approach to peace
Minister of National Defense Han Min-koo and his U.S. counterpart Ashton Carter approved new guidelines to counter long-range missile threats posed by North Korea in the 47th annual Security Consultative Meeting in Seoul on Nov. 2. The so-called “4D Operational Concept” will allow the two allies to detect, disrupt, destroy and defend against North Korean missile threats, including nuclear, chemical and biological warheads.
Most people cannot understand the significance of the concept. But it suggests Washington has become more alert and proactive towards North Korean threats. It will mobilize all possible means - a nuclear umbrella, conventional firearms and missile defense mechanism - for “effective and successful deterrence” against North Korean threats. The reiteration of utmost military capabilities and will to defend South Korea is a relief to hear. North Korea has been resolute in beefing up nuclear power and threatening a preemptive strike ever since it announced its pursuit of nuclear militarization on April 1, 2013.
But experts worry about two things. The first is a commitment trap. A commitment to strong deterrence could constrain flexibility in our thought and actions. We may have no choice but to go to war because of the commitment and subsequent procedures. The second is that North Korea, feeling threatened, could be tempted to escalate tensions to justify use of nuclear weapons.
North Korea may not have the same restraint as the United States and former Soviet Union over its nuclear power, and Washington’s nuclear strategy may not be effective in taming Pyongyang. The show of strong will therefore cannot promise a solution to the problem.
The Seoul defense authorities tallied 24 provocations in 2012, 39 in 2013 and 45 in 2014 from North Korea. Pyongyang has been upping military provocations under the rule of Kim Jong-un, as its confidence in nuclear capabilities rises.
The two Koreas reached the brink of war after exchanging firearms for two weeks after the land mines that North Korea is suspected to have planted along the border went off and maimed two South Korean soldiers in August. Seoul and Pyongyang put a dramatic end to the confrontation through marathon talks that produced an agreement on Aug. 25 to end conflict and resume dialogue. Pyongyang put off launching a rocket for the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party founding and agreed to arrange reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. But the event should raise awareness of how a crisis can develop quickly.
President Park Geun-hye repeatedly promised to help North Korea restore and revive its economy together with the international community if it irreversibly gives up nuclear weapons. Leaders of South Korea, the U.S., China and Japan in bilateral and tripartite summit talks reiterated that they won’t tolerate North Korea’s nuclear campaign. But we cannot expect Pyongyang to suddenly relinquish. While sustaining strong deterrence, efforts to ease inter-Korean military tensions must continue.
The two Koreas also need a realistic solution to build trust regardless of endeavors to denuclearize North Korea. The past governments were all keen to do so, but repeated failures demand a new approach. We need to make gestures and offers that are symbolic and meaningful enough that they are too tempting for Pyongyang to resist. We can propose joint efforts to dig up and remove land mines across the border. Chinese President Xi Jinping during the UN General Assembly proposed to assist an 8,000-strong peacekeeping force to help clear land mines in conflict zones. The two Koreas in 2009 conducted joint mine clearing activities along the demilitarized zone. The international community agreed to the Ottawa Treaty banning production and use of anti-personnel mines in 1997, but the two Koreas have not joined it due to security reasons. Park proposed turning the DMZ into a peace park, and removing mines could be the starting point for the country’s vision of lasting peace for the region.
Pyongyang’s agreement to the proposal could help ease military tensions and prepare for peaceful unification. Most of all, the act could substantially improve its image. The wasteful arms race won’t stop unless North Korea gives up nuclear weapons altogether. But the problems can ease if North Korea commits itself to international treaties for humanitarian reasons. Our lessons from the past beg us to be more practical in our approach toward North Korea by starting with things that are realistic and possible. The August mine incident provides the grounds for the two Koreas to talk seriously about turning and managing the DMZ area safe first through removal of land mines to build mutual trust.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 13, Page 29
The author is a professor at Sookymyung Women’s University.
by Hong Kyu-deok