Standing at a crossroads
The dark clouds that formed over the peninsula from North Korea’s latest nuclear test are now turning into a storm. It’s possible the test involved a boosted fission weapon, although it was far from a hydrogen bomb, as Pyongyang claimed.
President Park Geun-hye addressed the nation to define the latest situation as a serious security crisis, but she failed to present effective countermeasures for ending the North’s nuclear program.
International cooperation is faltering. However, security officials have displayed an extreme sense of urgency - and the situation looks serious.
First, the North appears to have resumed its production of nuclear materials after restarting its nuclear reactor, building a new nuclear reactor and operating nuclear enrichment facilities. It currently has weapons-grade nuclear materials sizeable enough to build 10 to 15 bombs, and within five years, it will secure enough materials to build up to 130 bombs.
Secondly, the North has consistently improved its missile capabilities. Pyongyang has succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead small enough to place on Scud and Rodong missiles, which are capable of reaching the South. The North has also secured mobile launchers for those missiles and is stepping up its submarine-launched ballistic missile capabilities. In other words, the regime’s nuclear threat is a reality, and it is rapidly worsening.
There is no need to reconsider how the North’s nuclear weapons are a grave threat to the South’s security. Nuclear weapons are apocalyptic when used, but possessing them allows a country the ability to blackmail. If conflicts arise at the inter-Korean border, or in times when tensions are high - when the North threatens a nuclear attack on a populated area in the South - could we strike back?
Until now, our responses have been themed on nuclear deterrence, nuclear defense and international sanctions. In international politics, only nuclear weapons are capable of deterring nuclear weapons. But arming the South with nuclear weapons or redeploying tactical nuclear weapons from Washington are both unrealistic options. The U.S. nuclear umbrella also accompanies skepticism, just like the doubt once cast by former French President Charles De Gaulle.
Will the United States engage in a nuclear war with North Korea for the sake of the South?
The second response is the tailored deterrence strategy using the pre-emptive Korean Air Missile Defense and the Kill Chain systems. But the effectiveness of missile defense is questionable because there would only be one or two minutes to respond to a North Korean attack on the peninsula.
Debate persists over the idea of a preemptive strike. Furthermore, it would be extremely difficult to detect signs of a missile firing from a mobile launcher. The fourth nuclear test was particularly shocking because no signs were detected in advance.
The third response is international sanctions, but China still remains a problem. China will likely discuss punishment based on the trigger clauses, and there is no prospect that a harsh resolution with severe consequences will actually be approved.
As we can see, existing responses to the North’s nuclear ambitions have either failed or proven to be limited. We cannot guarantee success if we maintain the status quo. We must remember that North Korea strongly intends to remain a nuclear state despite sanctions and diplomatic isolation - and it can secure that position as long as China treats Pyongyang’s stability as a key interest.
But it shows us a new path to denuclearize the North.
First, peace should be established on the peninsula by reducing outside threats against North Korea, which Pyongyang uses to justify its nuclear programs.
In fact, the North agreed to the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework after the United States promised nonaggression. It also signed the Sept. 19, 2005 agreement of the six-party talks when member-states promised to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula.
But the North walked out of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty in 2003 after the Bush administration labeled the North as the “axis of evil” despite the agreements. When the axis of peace was ignored, and when only the axis of denuclearization was pressured from the 2005 agreement, the North abandoned the six-party talks in 2008.
Bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula, including a peace treaty, will also play a pivotal role in making China more aggressive toward the denuclearization of the North.
China recently announced that denuclearization, peace and dialogue must all be achieved and that it will not allow any to be omitted. If a peaceful approach for removing outside threats against the North is discussed, China will no longer turn a blind eye to a nuclear North Korea. If the North rejects the option of peace and continues its nuclear development program, China will have to act to remove this unreasonable neighbor, because an irrational North can always use its warheads against Beijing.
In order for China to potentially replace an irrational North Korean regime, lessening China’s fear by promising that the U.S. Forces Korea will not advance into North Korea in the case of the regime’s collapse would prove helpful in changing Beijing’s policy toward Pyongyang.
We are standing at a crossroads, and we must choose between continuing our current policy, which has failed over the past two decades, or opening a new policy for peace and change.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 22, Page 29
*The author is a professor in the Department of International Relations at Kyung Hee University.
by Kwon Man-hak