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‘NK nuke conundrum requires visionary diplomacy’

To stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats from fueling a regional arms race, South Korea and its regional security partners should jointly address the issue and the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, a former South Korean foreign minister has said.

Song Min-soon, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul and a foreign minister from 2006-8, said at a forum in Seoul on Feb. 15 that “the security of the world in a nuclear age cannot be achieved by strengthening nuclear deterrence or operational nuclear weapons, but by way of their reduction and elimination.”

“With the quandary of North Korea’s nuclear program festering, the desires for nuclear armament are deepening across regions, as in the cases of India versus Pakistan and Israel versus Iran,” he said at a seminar, titled, “The Trump Administration’s Nonproliferation and the Korean Peninsula.”

“If our efforts at containing the North’s nuclear capability ultimately fail, it will be difficult to stop a volatile nuclear domino effect in Northeast Asia.”

The conference was organized by the Korea Nuclear Policy Society and the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament. 

Participants pose at a seminar, titled, “The Trump Administration’s Nonproliferation and the Korean Peninsula,” in Seoul on Feb. 15, which brought together foreign policy and North Korea experts. (East Asia Foundation)
Participants pose at a seminar, titled, “The Trump Administration’s Nonproliferation and the Korean Peninsula,” in Seoul on Feb. 15, which brought together foreign policy and North Korea experts. (East Asia Foundation)

Referring to the “Zero Option” security policy proposed by the US to withdraw all Soviet and American intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe in the early 1980s, Song said a similar strategy could create more opportunity for negotiations on limiting Pyongyang’s nuclear development and missile deployment.

US President Ronald Reagan made the proposal in 1981 not to proceed with the scheduled deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles, on the condition that the Soviet Union remove its SS-4, SS-5 and SS-20 missiles targeting Western Europe.

Under the leadership of Soviet Secretary-General Mikhail Gorbachev, the USSR soon returned to nuclear arms control negotiations and the Zero Option constituted the basis of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, agreed in principle in September 1987 and signed on Dec. 8 that year.

A total of 2,692 Soviet and US nuclear missiles were eliminated under the treaty by the end of May 1991. This multilateral agreement -- which removed both intermediate and shorter-range nuclear forces from Europe, dubbed the “Double Zero” deal -- is widely regarded as a key part of ending the Cold War.

North Korea has gone for broke to harness its nuclear program, Song said, for the purpose of upgrading its technical and defense capabilities, stabilizing the regime’s rule and gaining an upper hand in diplomacy.

Under leader Kim Jong-un, North Korea has significantly upgraded its weapons capabilities, undertaking 36 ballistic missile tests and three nuclear tests over the last five years. In a New Year’s address, Kim Jong-un claimed that “preparations for testing an intercontinental ballistic missile is nearing the end,” signaling it will soon test-fire an ICBM that could directly hit the US mainland.

The administration of US President Donald Trump, for its part, is unlikely to invest much political energy in the North Korean problem, he projected, as it has proved highly difficult to negotiate with. However, once Washington finds the issue aligned with its interests facing the midterm election or re-election, the administration could try to negotiate with Pyongyang more proactively, he added.

Arguing that South Korea and its allies and partners “have not gone to the bottom to negotiate the nuclear impasse,” Song stressed that “the issue is inseparable from the Korean Peninsula’s unification” and “South Korea should pursue a diplomacy that transcends political calculations and administrations.”

Song Min-soon, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul and a foreign minister from 2006-8 (East Asia Foundation)
Song Min-soon, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul and a foreign minister from 2006-8 (East Asia Foundation)

Jun Bong-geun, professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, said Pyongyang has constitutionally laid down its nuclear armament as “fait accompli,” with its nuclear doctrine specifically targeting South Korea.

“Although it is hard to see North Korea’s nuclear strategy as having been firmly established, using weapons will not likely be institutionally decided, relying instead on Kim Jong-un’s ad hoc call,” Jun said. “The North Korean leader’s pugnacious and temerarious character, gross disregard for human rights and humanity, lack of governing experience and capricious and impulsive decision-making are grave risk factors in the possible decision to use the nukes.”

Unlike the “no-first-use” principle of China -- which stipulates that nuclear weapons will only be used in a retaliatory measure against an enemy’s preemptive nuclear strike -- the North’s nuclear principle is more aggressive and threatening, the professor explained.

“Despite Pyongyang’s advocacy of a ‘no-first-use’ principle in its nuclear doctrine, with the necessary condition of its ‘sovereignty under attack by nuclear weapons,’ the regime will make decisions arbitrarily,” he said. “As South Korea is an ally of the nuclear superpower US, and they together have conducted joint military exercises, enforced international sanctions and criticized the regime, Pyongyang will probably interpret all of these measures as ‘violating its sovereignty using nuclear force.’”

In consequence, North Korea has opened the possibility of attacking South Korea using a first strike and preemptive strike, he added.

The academic also said Pyongyang will likely pursue a “very aggressive” nuclear strategy -- comprised of a posture and doctrine -- by maximizing its second strike capability and hostile posture toward the South.

Noting the US and Russia each possess over 7,000 nuclear weapons and Britain, France, China, Israel, India and Pakistan have between 100 and 300 each, Jun said North Korea -- estimated to own about 10 nukes -- could multiply its weapons stock to 100 over the next 10 years, if it continued its current course.

However, due to the weapons’ diminishing utility and excessive operating cost, the regime will not likely increase its capacity infinitely, he added.

By Joel Lee (joel@heraldcorp.com)
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