Nuclear armament not an answer
North Korea decisively veered towards nuclear arms buildup by blasting off a satellite rocket on the heels of a purported hydrogen bomb test. South Korea has responded sternly by initiating heavier international sanctions, upping deterrence through the possible presence of the U.S. missile shield called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, and closing down the last inter-Korean joint venture, the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
But more and more are advising that the traditional hard-line actions through sanctions, pressure, and deterrence buildup alone cannot influence Pyongyang. A complete rethinking and makeover over of the paradigm is therefore necessary.
One option gaining ground is South Korea’s indigenous nuclear arms program. The proponents borrow the Cold War concept of mutually assured destruction. The Chosun Ilbo in its editorial on Jan. 28 proposed that the country start discussing a nuclear arms program. Many politicians, intellectuals, and some conservative civilian groups also recommend we arm ourselves with U.S. tactical nuclear weapons or an indigenous nuclear arsenal.
The argument for nuclear armament is raised for two reasons - first for our security and second for motivating Washington to consider redeployment of its tactical nuclear arsenal and Beijing to become more proactive in influencing Pyongyang. But both fall short of transforming the paradigm of North Korean policy.
As soon as South Korea declares a nuclear weapons campaign, it will face strong headwinds. Our nuclear power industry - that entirely runs for commercial use - would be ruined, as would our traditional alliance with the United States. The Korean economy would head into a tailspin and risk being slapped with international sanctions. Some compare us to Israel. But Israel does not have the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Moreover, South Korea going nuclear could be a tipping point in a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia. How can we deal with mighty countries like China and Japan with nuclear power when we cannot even handle poor-yet-nuclear-armed North Korea?
To use a nuclear program as leverage on North Korea and China is equally unrealistic. We don’t even have command control during wartime. It would only give an excuse for conservatives in Japan to pursue military reinforcement. Washington also won’t be moved to consider deploying short-range tactical nuclear weapons for battle when it already concluded that strategic nuclear for deterrence and existing conventional arms are enough to protect South Korea from attack. Korea could just fall out with its longtime ally during the process.
Arming ourselves with nuclear weapons cannot be the solution. Pre-emptive attack or any military actions also are out of the question. Even without international rules, we must not forget that Pyongyang has persistently built up conventional and nuclear deterrence over the last 20 years. A pre-emptive attack also could develop into a full-fledged war and jeopardize lives and properties of our people. There is too much at stake.
Whether we like it or not, we must solve this problem through a new platform of dialogue. The fact that it had not worked in the past should not be the reason to dissuade us from renewing endeavors. We should instead focus on new and inventive ways and principles for negotiations.
First of all, we must be frank. We must speak our mind and also hear out Pyongyang in order to find a middle ground. Second, we must be practical and realistic. The goals for negotiations must be adjusted in tune with circumstances. We must face the reality that we cannot make North Korea completely dismantle its nuclear weapons and facilities in a short time. Instead, we should seek a moratorium on the nuclear program to prevent further progress and production of nuclear materials. Pyongyang repeatedly said it would cease nuclear activities if terms were met.
Third, we must be flexible. We must put all the possible cards on the table including a temporary halt to Korea-U.S. joint military drills, replacement of armistice with a peace treaty, and allowance of North Korea’s peaceful space or satellite program. We must not cross them out just because they are being demanded by Pyongyang. While addressing issues through dialogue, we could probe Pyongyang’s intentions and demand responsibility for any breach of faith.
We understand President Park Geun-hye is very angry at Pyongyang. But personal feelings should not interfere in a leader’s judgment when people’s lives and safety are at stake. People should come first in the new paradigm on her North Korea policy. A decision made out frustration is not wise.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 13, Page 27
*The author is a political science professor at Yonsei University.
by Moon Chung-in