Nukes can’t win peaceAnything can happen on the volatile Korean Peninsula. What appeared to be a dangerous flashpoint just a few weeks ago — with incessant missile and nuclear tests by North Korea and a violent exchange of threats between Pyongyang and Washington — has dramatically seen a conciliatory mood arise through the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and the diplomacy inspired by the Games.
Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was all smiles and charm in Seoul and Pyeongchang despite all the media attention she attracted after crossing the border — the first member of the Kim dynasty to do so. She watched the joint Korean ice hockey team play against Switzerland and a performance by a North Korean art troupe alongside South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The world’s attention is now on the two Koreas after Kim delivered her brother’s written invitation to Moon to attend a summit in Pyongyang, which the South Korean leader politely suggested would be possible when conditions are right. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence scrupulously kept his gaze and his person as far away from Kim and Kim Yong-nam, Pyongyang’s nominal head of state, as he could finagle. Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington have all laid down their cards. The peninsula once again enters a testing time at the crossroads of peace and war.
Moon is finally in the driver’s seat in determining Korean Peninsula issues. While handing over her brother’s letter, Kim encouraged her host to become “the hero of opening a new chapter towards unification.” But there are too many stumbling blocks before Moon. He told his North Korean guests, “Let’s work towards making the conditions.” But it is Pyongyang that holds the key to determining Korea’s fate, as it was the actor that made the proposal to hold a summit.
Washington is the major factor in deciding the third inter-Korean summit. Seoul’s relationship with Washington was good at the time when the first inter-Korean summit was held in 2000. Washington struck a landmark deal with Pyongyang that year. In 2007, the six-party talks also led to an agreement on a denuclearization scheme before the second inter-Korean summit. But it is different this time. The leaders of Pyongyang and Washington still keep up their name-calling rhetorical volleys. Washington won’t take the heat off Pyongyang unless it takes decisive steps towards denuclearization.
Kim Jong-un must confront reality. North Korea defied international warnings and carried out three inter-continental ballistic missile tests and conducted its sixth nuclear test last year. It declared it has perfected a nuclear missile that can strike any part of the U.S. mainland. But that invited tougher international sanctions. With its sole and primary ally China joining the U.S.-led sanctions, Kim’s leadership could be seriously weakened around Sept. 9, when the country celebrates the 70th year of its founding.
Kim provoked U.S. President Donald Trump by saying the nuclear button was on his table in a New Year’s address. But as long as sanctions are in place, the country will run out of foreign currency and other supplies. The North Korean economy, whose reliance on external trade has reached 50 percent, could crumble. Instead of acting as a deterrent, nuclear armaments can backfire.
Unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump is not a person of patience and understanding. He has no intention of tolerating the North Korean threat. He may take a decisive action before the mid-term election in November. The talk of a so-called “bloody nose” military strike is being publicly discussed in Washington. The White House reportedly abandoned Victor Cha — nominated as Trump’s first ambassador to Seoul — because he disagreed with the hawkish option. The U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services also discussed a military option on North Korea on Jan. 30.
Scholars invited to the hearing advised against the option as any military strike — however limited — is highly risky and could lead to full-scale war, which goes against international laws as well as the U.S. Constitution. But it is obvious that Washington is seriously looking at the military option. This may have persuaded Kim to try a charm offensive.
Pyongyang must make a good judgment. Kim promised his people better living standards. But North Korea is getting more isolated and impoverished to the extent of risking collapse of the regime thanks to its nuclear pursuit. Just because it has a few nuclear weapons, North Korea could not dare to fight the mighty U.S. forces. If it keeps up its nuclear threats, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan would be forced to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. If South Korea adopts nuclear arms, North Korea will immediately lose its edge. North Korea does not stand a chance against South Korea with an economy 40 times bigger and backed by a high-tech military and the world’s superpower.
The Moon Jae-in administration is bent on keeping up the momentum for dialogue. It has persuaded Washington to suspend joint military drills and earned exceptions to the international sanctions during the Olympics period. The United States has played along during the Olympics period, but is not happy about any easing of its maximum pressure campaign. South Korea’s younger generation won’t agree to an all-engaging détente towards Pyongyang, having witnessed the deadly military attacks and nuclear development in recent years. The government will be making a very big mistake if it makes concessions through the momentum of summit talks without tangible progress in denuclearization.
Before leaving South Korea, Pence spoke for Washington. He said that the United States won’t tolerate a “propaganda charade” and hoped the cozy mood between the two Koreas would sober up once the Olympics torch light goes off. If Pyongyang is really serious about summit talks with Seoul, it must make sincere move towards denuclearization. Otherwise the truce ends with the Olympics. Nuclear armaments cannot buy peace.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb 12, Page 31
*The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.