How to avert a warThe leading presidential candidates in South Korea are all opposed to the idea of Washington striking North Korean military sites without the consent of Seoul, and they are rightfully so. But the next Korean president must be ready to answer to Donald Trump when he asks about alternatives to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Polls show Americans hate North Korea more than Syria and Iran. They’ve learned the regime is starving its own people and has weapons technology advanced enough to threaten the U.S. mainland in the near future with nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles. They believe a manic leader who ordered the assassination of his half brother in an international airport in broad daylight with a highly toxic nerve agent could be a serious threat to America.
A democratic state cannot ignore public sentiment in policy making. The North Korean nuclear issue has come to dominate Washington’s attention and drawn the so-called maximum pressure and engagement strategy from the Trump administration. The businessman-turned-president has offered economic returns for Beijing if it pulls the plug on Pyongyang. He has also used tough words, warning that Washington is prepared to act alone if Beijing continues to drag its feet on the North Korean nuclear issue. That could include actions leading to a trade conflict or upsetting the peaceful status quo on the Korean Peninsula. Trump proved he was a man of action when he ordered air strikes on a base in Syria and dropped the most powerful non-nuclear bomb on an ISIS position in Afghanistan.
The Korean Peninsula is at a critical point. If nonmilitary measures no longer work to stop the fast advance in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the postwar peace framework in the region may become hard to sustain. If the problem is not solved now, it may become too late.
We must act as the shrewd designer of a denuclearization scheme for North Korea. No other state is more desperate to prevent a war, and no one knows North Korea better than South Korea. It is our responsibility — and right — to come up with a feasible formula for instrumental denuclearization and work closely with Washington and Beijing to implement the strategy. Otherwise, we will become a backseat driver while Washington and Beijing decide the peninsula’s fate.
The new formula should aim to use economic sanctions for the purpose of ensuring denuclearization and peace. Sanctions must be strong and short. The UN Security Council’s sanctions that followed Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear test limited imports of North Korean anthracite coal to $400 million per year. China’s imports of North Korean coal from December to February has already neared the cap. Fearing retaliation from Washington, Beijing suspended imports of North Korean anthracite coal starting from Feb. 19. If the suspension continues throughout the year, North Korea’s economy could lose more than 2 percentage points in annual growth and 30 percent in net foreign-currency income. Beijing would have to cut off its oil supply if Pyongyang goes for a sixth nuclear test.
Sanctions alone cannot make Pyongyang surrender. The effect wears off after a certain period. Formal trade could become illicit. North Korea could ship its coal under other nationalities. Even if Washington issues more sanctions, small Chinese importers could continue to truck in North Korean coal. The best we can expect from sanctions is suspension of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests and compliance with inspections of its nuclear sites by an international agency. Then, we must come up with a next-stage plan to complete denuclearization.
When North Korea ceases nuclear and missile tests, Seoul must promote exchanges with the goal of creating a single market for the two Koreas. It should work toward stirring changes within North Korea through increased economic and trade activities. North Korea’s denuclearization cannot be achieved through outside pressure.
Instead, we must be able to present alternative incentives and rewards for Kim Jong-un in return for giving up nuclear weapons. This might include access to a single Northeast Asian market and infrastructure and upgrades in North Korean economic and social structures through market activities. What prompted China’s economic reforms in the late 1970s was proliferation of economic gains that moved not only ordinary Chinese but also elite bureaucrats. Fundamental changes in the Soviet economy and society also led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its transition to democracy in 1992.
Unfortunately, none of the South Korean presidential candidates have specific long-term plans for lasting peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula at such a critical stage. Our policy on North Korea is bound to fail again without thorough preparation, but failure this time could be fatal.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 20, Page 35
*The author is a professor of economics at Seoul National University.