A decisive momentKim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons policy is reckless and rushed. Compared to his predecessors, he is especially vicious, conducting two nuclear tests and many missile launches in a year. But ironically, the extreme behavior has turned out to be useful because now we know the true intentions of the numerous provocations. North Korea is focusing on lighter and smaller nuclear weapons and advancements in delivery methods.
Pyongyang is rushing. The regime launches missiles every few weeks and conducts nuclear tests every few months. Right after its fifth test, the regime boasted about its success. The missile launch that happened as the UN Security Council was convening after the nuclear test reminds us of the same situation that happened after the fourth nuclear test. The recklessness suggests additional provocations.
What are they aiming for? Of course, they aspire to possess nuclear weapons. But the immediate goal is to prove they have the capacity to strike the United States. They are rushing to shock and provoke during the U.S. presidential election. In the past, Pyongyang has always made provocations whenever the administration changes in the United States.
In 1993, after Bill Clinton’s inauguration, North Korea withdrew from the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. In 2009, after Barack Obama was sworn into office, it conducted its second nuclear test. After his re-election in 2013, it went for a third test. The exception was George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001, perhaps because of Bush’s cowboy-style response.
What does Pyongyang want from threatening the United States? We can presume that North Korea wants to strike a deal. Unless it has a deal in mind, it is hard to understand the intentions behind its sequence, timing and rhetoric.
If North Korea escalates the threat level, a new administration would have to move more actively than President Obama has, whether it is through pressure or negotiations. Then, Pyongyang will seek a breakthrough with intense brinkmanship in negotiations. Pyongyang will demand virtual recognition of its nuclear capabilities and a peace system.
The pressure option is already being discussed in Washington. Striking missile launch facilities, shooting down missiles in the air and a crackdown on ships can be expected. But the United States may attempt a talk before playing hard. It will be an intense negotiation, and a failure can be justification for a firm stance.
From North Korea’s standpoint, this is the last year of the current administration and an election season in the United States. The North Korean nuclear situation can stir up the presidential campaign. The current and next administrations need to prepare for both scenarios, for negotiations and pressure.
Now, we need to reconsider several different stances in South Korea. The government is struggling to adjust to changing situations. If we go for sanctions, it would be hard to adjust when the United States engages in negotiations. We may find ourselves in a dilemma if the United States goes hard on the North as the public is likely to oppose military options. Seoul may not be in tune with the United States.
Hard-line options such as nuclear armament are being discussed among some politicians. These claims have little feasibility and utility. Other politicians want talks. But it won’t be appropriate as North Korea will continue its provocations. We have seen similar developments surrounding deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system.
If the nuclear threat becomes a hot topic in South Korea’s presidential election next year, and the discussion becomes extreme regardless of the actual situation, the winning side may feel it has license to use its approach.
But such a conclusion is worrisome as it limits South Korea’s response and options. Koreans tend to go extreme and focus on theories in every issue. Next year’s election is likely to fan such a tendency.
Pressure and negotiations are both necessary tools, and we need to choose one according to the situation. It is only fair that pressure intensify if Pyongyang provokes. But we still need to pursue negotiations and choose the next move.
Unfortunately, pressure and dialogue have become tainted words as a result of ideological confrontation. The conservatives consider dialogue a reward, and the progressives look at pressure as an obstacle to dialogue. But in reality, one cannot work without the other.
We need to define our responses with North Korea’s intentions in mind. We need to break away from political factionalism and ideology when it comes to the nuclear threat and make bipartisan and reasonable choices in the national interest. The presidential election should be a political process of converging national opinions. We should be wary of the election turning into a battleground of extreme options.
The situation will call for both negotiations and pressure. The next year or so will be a decisive moment for North Korea’s nuclear direction. Pyongyang is engaging in a reckless game. South Korea and the United States are entering heated election seasons and times of uncertainty. Here, we are left with the task of making wise choices and precise coordination.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 6, Page 29
*The author, former head of the Office of Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs, is a visiting professor of politics and diplomacy at Seoul National University.