The Two Koreas' Long Slog over Nuclear Weapons

There is cautious optimism in Washington DC and other capitals about a possible nuclear thaw on the Korean peninsula since the visit of North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan to New York to discuss nuclear proliferation, and a later meeting in Bali between nuclear negotiators for both North and South Korea.

The Bali meeting, on the side of a regional meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, was the first since disarmament talks collapsed in 2008. The two events have generated at least some hope that an armed and dangerous North Korea could somehow be controlled. They appear to be at one with a three-step plan by China for resumption of the Six-Party talks. They have been accomplished so relatively quickly and painlessly that they appear to suggest that step three – the resumption of the talks, is right around the corner.

We have been here before, of course. The North Korean limousine countless times has drawn right up to the doorway of a hopeful dialog only to have the other participants discover that the limousine is filled with combatants throwing rocks and broken bottles at them. There is probably good reason to be cynical about the latest moves on the part of the North.

Let’s be clear: South Korea remains at a key inflection point in its own decision not to go nuclear, a policy that has been long welcomed by America’s defense and diplomatic elites. But things are changing. Talk of a nuclear option was almost unthinkable in South Korea a decade ago, but there has been, more recently, a rising chorus of commentators among the mainstream media and conservative politicians who publicly support open debate over Seoul’s potential nuclear future. It means that South Korea may fall into the eye of the unwanted nuclear storm.

Instead of condemning the regime of the dictator Kim Jong-Il as one on the verge of total collapse, the right-wing groups have been urging the Lee government to nullify the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, signed in 1992, since North Korea has already broken the pact. They assert that the 1992 pact is like a plaque that simply gathers dust in a closet. But whether or not to repeal the pact remains the elephant in the room, essentially because Washington is still emphasizing its commitment to the existing policy as a whole. In other words, America is the only mahout who could manage it.

Any official expression of nuclear weapons development in South Korea is probably politically and diplomatically suicidal. But although Seoul is not now likely to harbour ambitions to develop a nuclear weapons capability, the chance of a profound change of mind cannot be set at zero. For want of an alternative, it would be wise not to take South Korea’s nuclear policy for granted, since a growing number of South Koreans also live in a nuclear-weapons-solve-everything version of Plato’s cave -- the same paranoid mindset the North has always insisted upon.

From a pure political engineering standpoint, the ideological debates that might move South Korea toward a nuclear weapons capability would highly likely arise at the oddest times, and in the heat of the elections season next year. By contending that the five other member states in the long-stalled Six Party Talks, except North Korea, have been using the wrong approach, extreme conservative pundits are likely to call for President Lee Myung-bak, whose term ends in February, 2013, to give the next president political space and diplomatic support on the possibility of developing a nuclear weapons program. South Korean leaders, for domestic political reasons, used to take bold position contrary to Washington’s lest they appear to be America’s lapdogs.

I have absolutely no idea of how South Korea, along with the US, should handle the North’s continuing nuclear blackmail. But I know for sure that there are a lot of people who believe the only way to understand events is to cause them, despite the fact that the misguided belief would precipitate a severe crisis in US-Seoul relations and create a disastrous situation on the peninsula.

The ROK-US alliance is already in tatters. Given the US’s rapidly eroding economic situation and Washington’s relative inattention to the peninsula, South Koreans no longer have full confidence in American backing. They see that as clearly evidenced by the US’s openly support to call the body of water between Korea and Japan the ‘Sea of Japan.’ At least for the present, aficionados of nuclear weapons would not mourn the possible departure of President Barack Obama in the wake of the elections result next year.

From the American perspective, the very existence of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has to take its place behind a long line of other issues, not least its debt crisis, its political gridlock and its malfunctioning government. South Korean concerns may be intensified by the possibly strategic miscalculation of the American non-proliferation policy elsewhere, especially in Japan. President Obama’s doctrine for a ‘nuclear-free-world’ is dead. It deserves to be honored, but the soul has moved on. Obama talks like Jimmy Carter but acts like George W. Bush, so to speak. A consensus now exists that Northeast Asia is, after all, likely to be the graveyard of Obama’s audacious non-nuclear mantra. /

Still there is always hope. But even if the broken talks resume, all of the member states – the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia – all know that there is no quick escape. The North rightly believes that the general principles and goals epitomized in the Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks on September 19, 2005 should serve as a lasting solution.

North Korea has always maintained that it has the right to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Given that the path to nuclear weapons capability is to intentionally hide it behind a civilian nuclear energy program, however, it is logical to be suspicious that the North’s aim is to become the de facto second nuclear state in Northeast Asia.

Pyongyang has said the country has weaponized enough plutonium for four or five nuclear bombs. The weapons themselves, of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) are allegedly in the making. That is an inescapable agenda if the nuclear negotiations continue to be stalled. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has clandestinely speeded up the development of nuclear weapons program and now appears driven to take bigger risks in the belief that there are high returns in high risks.

The fact that North Korea has upgraded its missile capability to reach Seoul in two to three minutes should provide no grounds for complacency. The warning lights are blinking. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the hostile North’s military manoeuvrings can figure that out.

(Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.)