The regime’s safety first
North Korea’s fourth nuclear test was a surprise. It was a complete success as neither Korea nor the United States and China had expected it. The North Korean government’s statement and the full-fledged celebration in the North suggest that the first hydrogen bomb test was carried out according to a well-prepared plan for a set of purposes. Naturally, South Korea, the United States and Japan responded uncompromisingly. While China and Russia oppose it, the United Nations Security Council is likely to adopt a tougher resolution for sanctions.
The two decades of effort to prevent the North’s nuclear development turned out to be a failure. But we cannot let it become a nuclear power. The efforts for denuclearization must continue. There are voices for Korea’s own nuclear armament and rearrangement of the strategic nuclear program. In short, they are not realistic solutions for Korea. Then, what should we do?
First of all, we need to ensure the sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council are faithfully executed in the international alliance. China and Russia’s cooperation will be the key. Both are nuclear states around the Korean Peninsula, along with the United States, and as a key member of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), they are responsible for failing to prevent the North’s nuclear possession.
The United States and China are especially accountable as allies to South and North Korea, respectively, and involved parties of the truce agreement. Washington’s “strategic patience” was indifference or negligence, and China’s “constructive role” was a disguise. If the United States and China have disagreements over the sanctions, they would be suspected of using the nuclear issue to seek their own strategic interests.
The nuclear problem cannot be solved through sanctions and pressure alone. China is still a sponsoring state of North Korea. According to international political scientist Kenneth Waltz, no foreign states have been able to prevent the nuclear armament of a country since World War II. South Africa is the only case of abandoning nuclear program after successful development, and it was made possible by the rise of a democratic regime. India and Pakistan became nuclear states without being members of the NPT. North Korea left the NPT, went on with nuclear tests and developed nuclear weapons. Iran was granted peaceful use of nuclear program. Libya makes North Korea wary of abandonment.
There is little possibility for North Korean leadership to voluntarily give up its nuclear program as it chose the strategy of being a nuclear state. If we are not confident to induce North Korea’s concession by pressuring through international alliance or to have clear calculation on the cost and effects of the North’s early collapse, we need to encourage North Korea to return to the six-party talks. In the government statement on the hydrogen bomb test, Pyongyang devoted most of the parts on delivering a message to the United States. It claimed that the reinforced nuclear deterrence was a response to Washington’s hostile policy against the North. Increased pressure would lead to Pyongyang’s brinkmanship.
Here, we need to pursue feasible measures. The most realistic plan is to guarantee North Korean regime’s safety - its foremost concern - in return for denuclearization. Some may think denuclearization must be achieved through democratization and regime change because of the human rights situation and politics of fear. Others continue to advocate the unrealistic idea of reunification to resolve the nuclear crisis. Can reunification happen so soon? There is no guarantee for the fall of the North Korean regime leading to reunification. And we must ask ourselves if we are able - and willing - to accommodate the situation smoothly.
Now that North Korea has become a de facto nuclear state, the negotiation structure and operation of the six-party talks need to change. As North Korea’s nuclear capacity grows, South Korea’s dependency on the United States will increase. As a result, Seoul’s strategic approaches to Beijing and Moscow will become harder. As the rivalry between the United States and China intensifies, Korea’s dilemma grows.
Considering many aspects - geopolitical structure of the Korean Peninsula, changing situations in the Northeast Asia, neighboring states’ Korean Peninsula policies, North Korean regime’s sustainability and market economy, Seoul’s policy caliber and political reality - changing the North Korean regime’s tendency is a task that should be pursued along with denuclearization. North Korea should be included as a member of the international community for increased interactions.
The point is to help North Korea feel secure about its system and actively participate in the interaction with South Korea and the United States. At the same time, we should urge Pyongyang to realize that nuclear possession is a key obstacle and a negative factor and make strategic change on its stance. We need a “comprehensive engagement strategy” more than ever. Engagement is not unilateral tolerance. As North Korea attacks to defend, South Korea and the United States must reach out for changes. Reunification without peaceful coexistence is realistically difficult.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 18, Page 29
*The author is a visiting professor at Kangwon National University.
by Park Young-ho