The nightmare begins

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The nightmare begins

Nam Jeong-ho
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Will the time of living with a nuclear-armed North Korea continue forever? Next month, an important report that will decide the fate of South Korea will be published in the United States. It is a review of America’s North Korea policy. Once principles are set after the government-level review, the entire U.S. administration will move in this direction at once. The United States invited Blue House National Security Advisor Seo Hoon to give Seoul’s position on Korea-U.S.-Japan foreign policy at a security director meeting this week.

The core of the review is whether to continue Trump’s “maximum pressure” aiming at a complete scrapping of the North’s nuclear program in the short term or to turn to a “phased approach” to accomplish a freeze or partial abandonment of the program through easing sanctions.

Washington is leaning toward the phased approach. Papers advocating a phased approach pour out from major think tanks. On March 25, when North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles, Foreign Affairs published an article entitled “It’s Time for a Realistic Bargain with North Korea.” It basically says that denuclearization is now impossible, so the U.S. should turn to reducing the nuclear threat.

There are three reasons why “maximum pressure” would not work. First, there is no possibility that North Korea would give up its nuclear program regardless of the intensity of pressure. North Korea struggled to acquire nuclear weapons after great ordeals. It will not budge over any sanctions. Second, for pressure to work, China needs to cooperate as it provides most essential supplies to North Korea. However, now that the U.S.-China relations have deteriorated, China is not likely to help. Last, as the Moon Jae-in administration is trying to open exchanges with the North, a pressure-oriented policy is not going to be easy.

In the end, it is likely that the direction of policy on North Korea would be a phased approach of continuing talks while exchanging a nuclear freeze and symbolic level of abandonment with relaxed sanctions. The United States is concerned that public opinion in South Korea and Japan will be stirred. It is obvious that calls to pursue nuclear armaments on their own will arise. Therefore, Robert Einhorn, former U.S. Department of State special advisor, said that the United States will likely attach a condition to “pursue complete denuclearization of North Korea in the long term,” as it defines the phased approach.

Economists joke that they should never set a specific time when they make an economic prediction. Without clarifying when, they can say “the economy would recover over the long term,” which may be meaningless yet faultless. So, “pursuing North Korea’s denuclearization in the long run” means practically giving up.

From Washington’s standpoint, the phased approach can be a realistic option. But South Korea has to watch a nuclear-armed North Korea become accepted. Having witnessed the fall of the Eastern bloc in Europe in the late 1980s, the United States believed that once China adopted a market economy, it would have a bigger middle class and become democratized. Such hopes were also the basis of the Kim Dae-jung administration’s Sunshine Policy. But take a look at what China has become today. And if North Korea goes down China’s path, there is a possibility that it could remain a nuclear state under an even stronger dictatorial rule of Kim Jong-un.

The principle of national security is to defend with strong defense or through the power of alliances. Now, the best defense is “extended deterrence” based on the Korea-U.S. alliance. But it cannot be relied on as the annually-scheduled Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group meeting has not been held over the last three years. Therefore, a stronger response plan should be devised, whether by establishing the Asian Nuclear Planning Group for South Korea and the U.S. to operate nuclear weapons together like the NATO or by deploying tactical nuclear weapons around the Korean Peninsula. If these are not possible, South Korea must find ways to protect itself from North Korean nuclear threats, including its own nuclear armaments.
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