A Trojan horseNow that the resolution of the North Korean nuclear threat has become a policy priority, it is unlikely that the United States will take the issue lightly. Washington sent a strong signal that it may consider using a military option to solve the problem by withdrawing the nomination of Victor Cha as the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea. If the military option was to be used only as a negotiation card, he wouldn’t have been dropped just because he opposes a “bloody nose” strike. That implies that Washington may attempt actual military action. But at this point, the focus is on dragging North Korea to the denuclearization talks through strong sanctions.
Seoul hopes to continue the mood for inter-Korean talks on the sidelines of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics to prevent further provocations and to move on to U.S.-North talks. However, the inter-Korean talks and prevention of provocations is the weakest link of all. In return for stopping nuclear and missiles tests, North Korea is likely to call for eased sanctions and the suspension of Korea-U.S. joint military exercises. North Korea would want South Korea to take the initiative rather than the United States. While South Korea does not have the authority to ease UN sanctions, North Korea may wish that various justifications could be made to make holes in the sanctions. Pyongyang can also ask Seoul and Washington to remarkably scale down the joint military drills.
If North Korea makes such demands, South Korea must reject them. South Korea will suffer the most if sanctions are not effective and the Korea-U.S. alliance is weakened. Sanctions are an attempt to prevent a war and resolve the nuclear issue peacefully. Any sign of South Korea breaking away from the pack could damage the effectiveness of the sanctions. Then talks may not begin, or fall apart even if they happen. To freeze the North’s nuclear program and get close to denuclearization, Kim Jong-un must face economic penalties if he doesn’t come to the table. Relying on Kim’s goodwill will only increase the possibility of war. This is the desperate reason why sanctions cannot be reduced even when talks happen.
The Korean government must study how the North Korean regime works. Three senior North Koreans made a sudden visit to South Korea for the closing ceremony of the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon because its economy was struggling. Anthracite makes up 40 percent of North Korea’s exports, and its price halved from 2011 to 2014. I presume that the economic growth rate fell from an average of 3 percent in 2012 to 2013 to 0 percent.
When the economy and foreign currency earning struggled, North Korea sought the attention of Japan and Russia and reached out to South Korea when initial attempts failed. The participation in the PyeongChang Olympics is similar. The biggest contributor to the North’s participation is not Kim’s goodwill, but economic sanctions. If Seoul had tried to persuade the North through dialogue, Pyongyang would have demanded tremendous economic assistance and political concessions.
Kim used his sister Yo-jong to shake off the system of sanctions. He not only engaged in talks with South Korea, but also invited President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang. These are signs that North Korea is in a desperate situation. But easing sanctions is a Trojan horse. Accepting the demands will lead to a fatal injury.
Let’s be more open to the North Korean athletes and cheering squad. Let’s embrace and encourage them. With a warm welcome and reception, we can present the gift of inspiration that there is a path to freedom and prosperity. But we should also be cool-hearted with regard to Kim’s nuclear and missiles program. Unless the nuclear issue nears resolution, the post-PyeongChang situation won’t be any different. We need to look at the bare face of Kim Jong-un, not his mask.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 14, Page 27
*The author is a professor of economics at the Seoul National University.