By: Shim Jae Hoon
A rash of North Korean missile-firings, including some that violate UN Security Council resolutions, not only undermines President Moon Jae In’s strenuous efforts to get a peace process started, but it amounts to flagging the Biden administration to remember that Kim Jong Un’s regime is waiting for attention. And what better way to do that other than firing a few missiles in the direction of Japan, US’s chief ally in Asia.
In the closing weeks of September, North Korea fired seven projectiles including a cruise missile and what it called a hyper-missile, which it said was a strategic weapon. Some of these splashed into the Japan Sea, close to her territorial waters, prompting an informal UN security council session to analyze their impact. At the same time, the North repeated its resolve to continue weapons program including building a nuclear-powered submarine and submarine-launched ballistic missile system. In short, it has no intention of discontinuing arms expansion program in favor of economic improvement, irrespective of sanctions placed by the UN.
In a speech at the UN general assembly in mid-September, Moon urged North Korea, China, and the US – the three combatants beside itself in the 1950-53 Korean War - to start a negotiation process leading to the replacement of the current armistice agreement with a permanent peace structure. A four-country agreement would formally close the state of conflict and sign a “declaration of peace” ending an uneasy truce, which is the longest such ceasefire in modern history. He invited Russia to join in the process as it shares borders with China and North Korea.
The Pyongyang regime first rejected Moon’s proposal, then suddenly showed interest, saying a peace declaration could be taken up at a bilateral meeting with President Moon. But Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said the US must cease a “hostile policy” against the North, while the South must stop its annual joint military exercises with the US. She indicated also that the South should accept the North’s arms program, probably meaning its nuclear arms program.
Seoul was electrified by the North’s quick response. With the country now expecting a presidential election campaign, the governing Democratic Party is desperate for an issue that can show its achievement under Moon’s five-year term in office. Achieving a reconciliation with the North has been a pet slogan of the Moon government, as it is filled with onetime student radicals proposing a revisionist approach to Pyongyang. Quite a few Democratic Party leaders have called for temporarily halting the US-Korean annual military exercises if that would help bring another summit talks with Kim. These radicals have signed a statement not only delaying joint military exercises, but also calling for the withdrawal of American troops from the South.
But the Biden administration is responding prudently, saying it was ready to start talks any time without conditions, but adding it would prefer dealing with a complete denuclearization of the North. In approaching future talks with caution, the new team in Washington wants to avoid the mistake of Donald Trump’s three high-profile meetings with Kim Jong Un, which achieved practically nothing but gave the isolated dictator a global image-making chance. The Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim ended abruptly when President Trump called for the opening of all nuclear facilities, not just partial nuclear and missile operation centers.
Caught in the grip of another summit spotlight, however, President Moon appears to be ready to accept even a partial nuclear deal. His security aides have called on Washington to provide “incentives” to invite North back to the conference table. Washington has firmly refused to accept such a gesture, telling Seoul to present a united position with allies vis-à-vis the North.
The conservatives in Seoul’s main opposition Korea People’s Power Party share that view. Moon’s repeated calls for unconditionally reopening contacts with Kim Jong Un, plus his readiness to discuss partial denuclearization agenda has provoked strong backlashes against his approach. Moon’s tilt toward the North’s position has provoked suspicions over his pollical leanings.
This comes on top of his nationalist-left leanings, such as the appointment of former anti-American student radicals in major government posts. The Unification Minister is a former radical who once called the US an imperialist power, and ruling party chairman comes from another anti-American radical group who said the North had the right to develop nuclear weapons in the face of the massive US nuclear arsenal. Moon has also appointed Park Jie Won, who served a prison term for illegally and secretly funneling US$450 million to the North as Kim Dae Jung’s emissary, as the nation’s top intelligence chief.
While these developments have prompted some conservatives to publicly raise questions over Moon’s patriotism (some conservatives openly call him a Korean Neville Chamberlain), the government’s campaign to provide more food aid has met with strong public opposition.
The prolonged border lockdown imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened economic hardships brought on by UN-imposed sanctions. The North’s foreign exchange income now comes mainly from illicit missile trade with countries like Iran, sources say. In the grip of economic and political hardships, the North has in the past used missile firing or nuclear tests to provoke Washington’s attention.
To shift the North away from dangerous confrontation, Seoul has provided several billion dollars worth of cash and food aid to alleviate hardships, but that hasn’t driven the North to reduce military tensions with the South. The regime has even dynamited the South Korean liaison office that the South had built near the Demilitarized Zone border.
All signs indicate it is again preparing to use its nuclear program to attract US attention or extort concessions. According to the latest report by International Atomic Energy Agency, Pyongyang appears ready to restart its 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon to extract plutonium for bomb-making.
“It is going full steam ahead” for reactivating its nuclear arms program, the IAEA said. “The bottom line is North Korea wants to improve the number and quality of its nuclear weapons,” Reuters quoted a spokesman as saying in August.
In the wake of years of frustrating talks, few South Korean specialists accept the proposition that the North could be enticed to negotiate its nuclear program away. According to Stanford University nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, one of the few outsiders who have seen the Yongbyon nuclear complex, the North now is estimated to have produced 45 nuclear bombs. He opines that failure by each passing US administration to solve the nuclear issue could mean the Pyongyang regime adding a few more bombs to its stock.
From the standpoint of the regime, making bombs should be easier or for that matter more useful than delivering bigger rice bowls to its hungry millions. After all, the regime justifies economic hardships on division of the peninsula which it blames on South Korean and US policy. In that surreal propaganda, belt-tightening is needed to produce the bomb that helps protect the regime and achieve reunification in their favor. In that sense, nuke and missile help keep people tied to the regime. For the North, tensions constitute a necessary means to keep people’s attention off peace and economic wellbeing. At the same time, It is a useful instrument to keep the US and South Korea perpetually tense and on their feet.
Shim Jae Hoon is a regular contributor and a former correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and other publications.