Stability hinges on nuke-free North

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Stability hinges on nuke-free North

Fifteen years ago, I met an Israeli journalist at a seminar in New York, and we became friends. At the time, CNN and other media outlets were covering the clashes between Israel and the Palestinians daily. I asked if the people’s lives in Israel were unstable, and my friend insisted that the situation was not as intense as the news made it sound.

Then he asked me about Korea. Was South Korea actually in a confrontation with the North?

His question was a wake-up call, reminding me of the risk on the Korean Peninsula.

South and North Korea have maintained a truce for 63 years. And in that time, we have become desensitized to repeated aggressions by our neighbor to the north. The financial market fluctuates when Pyongyang engages in a show of force, only to stabilize again soon after. Even after the news of North Korea’s latest nuclear test, tensions did not seem to last very long.

Thirty-three years have passed since North Korea left the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and a decade has passed since its first nuclear test. Meanwhile, the international community and United Nations Security Council have failed to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons. On Jan. 6, Pyongyang conducted its fourth nuclear test - a clear sign that its nuclear weapons capabilities are advancing.

We cannot be indifferent to these threats. They are real hindrances to peace. But most of us do not understand the gravity of what it means to possess nuclear weapons because it does not affect our everyday lives.

It is unfortunate that the value of Korean companies is discounted in the international financial market because of the geopolitical uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula. After the Korean economy successfully overcame a series of crises, what is known as the “Korea discount” was alleviated. Our economic fundamentals are undeniably heathier now to endure any risks from North Korea.

But the nuclear threat applies tremendous pressure on a different level. We’re not just talking about discounted stock prices. Priorities in government policy and the distribution of resources must inevitably change. The president’s attention should be focused on the nuclear issue, above all others. We cannot help increasing the defense budget. The resources that could be used to create jobs and enhance welfare may have to be diverted to respond to the nuclear threat.

Lately, South Koreans have started self-deprecatingly referring to Korea as “Hell Joseon.” Young people see their everyday reality as hell due to the high unemployment rate and a crippling corporate culture. But what’s obvious is that tensions on the Korean Peninsula resulting from the North Korean nuclear threat have only made this reality worse.

The United Nations Security Council has finally prepared a plan for sanctions on North Korea. And while loopholes for Pyongyang still exist, the restrictions have been significantly upgraded. China, the North’s longtime ally, also approved the new sanctions. The package should push North Korea to give up its nuclear program. But as long as a nuclear-armed North Korea remains, Hell Joseon will never end.

The author is the New York correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 1, Page 26

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