Sat, 04 Jan 2003

Nuke crisis: Time for a new approach

Shim Jae Hoon, The Korea Herald, Asia News Network, Seoul

Potentially as worrisome as the nuclear crisis taking shape over the Korean Peninsula are signs of widening discord between Seoul and Washington over how to deal with this fresh brinkmanship from Pyongyang.

Not only are cracks opening in the 50-year-old Korean-U.S. military alliance forged in blood during wars in Korea and Vietnam, but their divulgence runs the risk of letting the North miscalculate our resolve and push ahead with its dangerous nuclear weapons program.

President Kim Dae-jung and his successor Roh Moo-hyun insist they can resolve the nuclear challenge through peaceful means and dialogue, even while Pyongyang has thrown out international monitors keeping watch over the Yongbyon reactor site.

Having already removed UN seals and disabled surveillance cameras installed at the nuclear facility, the North now can freely refire its frozen 5-megawatt reactor to extract more weapons-grade plutonium.

Certainly the nuclear crisis has to be resolved through peaceful means. The trouble with President Kim's approach has been its lack of teeth; his "sunshine policy" of engagement has been generally ineffective in enhancing the peninsula's security -- its prime goal.

The policy even failed in stopping the North from sinking a South Korean patrol vessel last summer in the West Sea in an unprovoked attack. Politically, his symbolic visit to Pyongyang two years ago for the milestone summit meeting has yet to receive a return visit from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

As the sunshine policy lacks coercive elements in the way of disincentives for the North's bad behavior, it has ended up giving the wrong impression that dialogue is what Seoul needs, rather than the other way around.

Seoul's failure to better coordinate with Washington on policy matters is even more disheartening. President Kim has taken issue with President George W. Bush's "tailored containment" policy of applying sanctions and a possible blockade to prevent the North from exporting missiles to rogue states in the Middle East.

This appears absurd given the way Kim has described the North's nuclear option as "unacceptable." Like Beijing, he wants a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, and yet doesn't seem too concerned with the prospect of the North continuing to export weapons of mass destruction that can financially keep its nuclear program going. This is a policy of propitiation, not deterrence, of the North's ambition.

Certainly, the North appears hardly likely to collapse anytime soon. What does look more likely to happen under the present circumstance is that we -- South Korea, Japan and the United States -- may end up feeding millions of starving North Koreans while Kim Jong-il goes on developing the bomb with proceeds from missile sales. The Bush administration itself has complicated the matter by allowing a vessel-load of North Korean Scud missiles that was intercepted on the Arabian Sea recently to proceed to Yemen, thus in effect encouraging Pyongyang to belittle its resolve.

More than eight years after the signing of the Agreed Framework that the North now admits to have cheated on, we have yet to figure out whether the North really wants a peace treaty from the United States, or if this wasn't just an illusion Pyongyang wanted us to fool ourselves with while it frantically developed the bomb. Its recent admission of secretly enriching uranium in violation of the Agreed Framework justifies the U.S. cutting off its heavy oil supply. Now it's our turn to warn that the recent spate of anti-U.S. demonstrations in Seoul notwithstanding, there is no chance of compromising our rejection of the North's nuclear option.

Ten years after stunning the world by threatening to bolt from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the North Korean ambassador in Moscow has again announced Pyongyang will consider itself no longer bound by it. If that were the case, Seoul must work closely with the United States to move the issue to the UN Security Council where it can be treated as an international threat, not just a concern involving the United States, Japan and South Korea.