Echo of imperialism
For the three decades after the truce of the Korean War, the world maintained peace and focused on economic growth based on the fear and logic of mutually assured destruction. Korea joined the international order and successfully attained democratization in the 1980s, hosted the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and took the lead in overcoming the Cold War. The four-party system in Korean politics from democratization finalized a new unification plan of one national community and two state systems, and North Korea participated in official talks and negotiations. In 1991, the Basic Agreements and the Joint Declaration for Korean Peninsula Denuclearization were signed, and U.S. tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from the South, followed by joint entry into the United Nations. With the end of the Cold War symbolized by German reunification, the division and confrontation on the Korean Peninsula seemed to be moving onto peaceful cooperation, but that remained a brief illusion.
The first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1993 began as North Korea’s constant pursuit of nuclear weapons development was revealed. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited North Korea in 1994, and an inter-Korean summit was agreed upon. A breakthrough for improved relations was anticipated. But all hopes were lost with the sudden death of Kim Il Sung. 23 years have passed since, and the North Korean nuclear problem has escalated to today’s crisis of a potential nuclear war. In retrospect, North Korea had no other option but to maintain its system. Unlike China and Vietnam, which attained considerable economic growth through market openings and globalization, North Korea had a hard time sustaining the one-man hereditary rule in the waves of globalization. North Korea must have had the anxiety that peace is more dangerous than war, just like the totalitarian systems in the 20th century.
In fact, North Korea’s advancements in nuclear weapons and ever more sophisticated missiles are largely caused by the passive responses of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, especially the United States and China. The “strategic patience” of former U.S. President Barack Obama was an ignoring of the urgency of the North Korean nuclear threat and underestimated the strategic importance of the East Asian region. As all East Asian countries and Australian recognize China as the only nuclear power in East Asia, many Asians are not convinced of why China was reluctant to act as North Korea aspires to become the second nuclear power in the region. The ambiguous stance of the powers created a situation where North Korea can confidently declare itself a nuclear state. North Korea’s nuclear ability is a threat to South Korea and Japan and also shakes up the international status of the United States and China, challenging global peace.
As China and Russia joined UN sanctions on North Korea, they are reluctant to implement an oil embargo, which is considered the most effective measure, reasoning that it would cause a serious humanitarian crisis among North Koreans. That suggests that the legacy of imperialism is still lingering. Choosing between continued pursuit of the nuclear project and a humanitarian crisis is North Korea’s right as an independent state, not a matter that neighboring powers can do by proxy, and their involvement only undermines their status.
Finally, voices concerned about a possible second Cold War, a second Korean War or a nuclear war and demands for more active responses to the nuclear threat are spreading not just in Asia but all over the world. The process of North Korea’s nuclear development is met with rejection by the international community. However, North Korea certainly made an impression in the international community by trying to become a nuclear state. Meanwhile, the international community is anxious and calls for solid joint action as the nuclear weapons could threaten South Korea, Japan and the United States across the Pacific. North Korea and all interested parties should work to end the confrontation with dialogue and operate diplomacy for peace. The wheel of history is moving through irrationality and rationality.
In November, U.S. President Donald Trump is planning an Asian tour, including a summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This is the best time to dispel the dark clouds of war.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 30, Page 31
*The author is a former Prime Minister and advisor of the JoongAng Ilbo.