Denuclearization is key
The author is an editor of international, foreign policy and security issues at the JoongAng Ilbo.
“Rage” by Bob Woodward, associate editor of the Washington Post, features North Korean leader Kim Jong-un looking down on South Korea. On August 5, 2019, Kim wrote in a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump that “the South Korean Army cannot be his enemy at present or in the future ... the ROK forces are no match for his Army.” When Mike Pompeo, as director of the CIA, visited Pyongyang in March 2018, Kim reportedly suggested he was ready to go to war with the United States.
Kim Jong-un considers the South Korean forces weaker than his because North Korea has nuclear weapons. To him, a nuclear-armed North Korea can negotiate with the U.S. on equal terms or go to war with it as a strategic state. But South Korea, which does not have nuclear weapons, has its fate determined by contests of nuclear-armed states, he believes.
Kim’s argument is simply mistaken. South Korea overpowers North Korea in conventional military strength. The Master Control and Reporting Center (MCRC) radar in Osan’s Air Force command monitoring the airspace over the Korean Peninsula shows South Korean airspace packed with fighter jets and passenger planes, but there are few planes over the North. North Korean fighter pilots rarely train because of fuel shortages. The performance of fighters like the F-35 or F-15 is far superior than that of the MiG 29, the North’s main fighter model. South Korea’s Navy and Army also possess superior equipment. While North Korea has twice the troops — 1.28 million compared to South Korea’s 590,000 — the difference is not very meaningful as intelligence and advanced weapons play a critical role in modern warfare. Also, economic power supports military power. South Korea’s economy is 50 times that of North Korea.
Also, while South Korea does not have nuclear weapons, it is protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Even Kim Jong-un would not think he could attack the South with nuclear weapons. In that case, nuclear retaliation by the United States would not only oust the Kim Jong-un regime but also deal an irreversible blow to North Korea.
Nevertheless, there is an aspect of the Moon Jae-in administration that causes Kim to look down on South Korea. The Moon administration has been clinging to dialogue with the North and did not properly respond to North Korea’s provocations. When North Korea wielded its nuclear program as the ultimate weapon and threatened Korea’s survival, South Korea asked the international community to ease sanctions.
Unification minister Lee In-young visited Panmunjom on September 16 ahead of the two-year anniversary of the September 19 Joint Declaration in Pyongyang and said he thought North Korea had the intention to abide by the September 19 inter-Korean military agreement. Considering North Korea’s unilateral violation of the military agreement with a coastal artillery drill on Changrin Island in the West Sea in November 2019 and demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong in June, Lee’s comment was ridiculous.
I am confused whether the government’s North Korea policy is aimed at denuclearization of the North or inter-Korean dialogue for its own sake.
The Moon Jae-in administration must face reality. Moon declared on the 70th anniversary of the Korean War that the competition between the South and the North ended long ago. But Kim has the opposite idea. He believes that nuclear weapons gave him an advantage. To make North Korea unable to threaten the South with nuclear weapons, North Korea should be denuclearized. Only then, can South Korea’s security uncertainty disappear.
To make Kim give up his nuclear arsenal, he must be pressured. The UN Security Council sanctions blocked economic cooperation other than humanitarian assistance. Attempts to bypass sanctions to offer assistance to North Korea means practically neglecting denuclearization. It is a great sin against South Korea. Now, the international community should tighten the net of sanctions to make North Korea relent.
South Korea must not disgrace its own dignity by making offers to cooperate with North Korea. It is the time to encourage cooperation between the United States and China to make sanctions work properly. The Moon administration must firmly set the strategic aim of denuclearization of North Korea.
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