North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons is primarily to counter the US extended deterrence for South Korea. But its impact is spreading to other areas -- inter-Korean relations and the US-South Korea alliance.
When North Korea approached South Korea after it had successfully launched an inter-continental missile in the direction of the US continent, both South Korea and the US strongly condemned it, but Seoul’s reaction was much less strong than Washington’s. Moreover, The South Korean government is more interested in the South-North Korea contact than North Korea’s rapid development of nuclear weapons.
The government tells the people that if a bilateral meeting is held, it will discuss all the pending issues including North Korea’s nuclear development but it does not explicitly mention it because it fears that North Korea will not attend any kind of inter-Korean dialogue in which the North Korean nuclear issue is included as a subject of discussion.
I am not privy to the formal and information meetings between both Korean officials during the opening day of the Pyongchang Winter Olympics but confident of my speculation because North Korea must have wanted to find out South Korea’s sincerity for the inter-Korean rapprochement and, at the same time, the degree of solidarity between the US and South Korea and the degree of control the US has over the South.
Faced with the unprecedentedly strong UN sanctions, North Korea is being almost completely isolated from the rest of the world. South Korea is perhaps the last hope for its survival.
On the other hand, the US has maintained the same position on North Korea. In view of this, it was quite natural that US Vice President Pence purposely avoided meeting the high-level North Korean delegation. The difference between President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump in their approaches to North Korea is in terms the subjects of discussion at any inter-Korean meetings: Trump insists that at inter-Korean meetings both Koreas should discuss the North Korean nuclear issue, while Moon holds that the South-North meetings can include the nuclear issue as one of the topics of reduction of tension between both Koreas because North Korea will not meet to discuss exclusively the North Korean nuclear issue. North Korea’s rationale for its nuclear development is that since the US protects South Korea by nuclear weapons, it has no choice but to produce its own. The North Korean leader argues that the ultimate solution is that neither side maintains nuclear weapons, reminding us that he is still not completely convinced that the US does not have nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and that it maintains nuclear weapons on Japanese territory and Guam, both of which are close to the Korean Peninsula.
He never believes the American and South Korean commitments that the US will never resort to its nuclear weapons unless the allied conventional forces are completely incapacitated, reminding it of the fact that the US has not abandoned the principle of no first use of nuclear weapons.
The North Korean leader believes that by becoming a nuclear power, North Korea will be placed on an equal footing with the US in any future war and in bilateral negotiations. This thinking is based on the assumption that the North Korean conventional military forces can deal with their South Korean counterparts on the Korean Peninsula if American forces are not stationed there. This is the reason why Pyongyang has been consistently demanding a peace treaty with the US since 2010. The peace treaty includes a provision on the withdrawal of foreign troops from Korea.
North Korea also demands a peace treaty as a condition for the abandonment of its nuclear and missile system. Theoretically, its demand is reasonable: The US is committed to extended deterrence to South Korea, but China has not made a similar commitment to North Korea explicitly, although it can under the China-North Korea mutual defense treaty. But in reality, the Sino-North Korean military coalition has greater geographical and logistic advantages than the US-South Korea military alliance. In view of the above security situation on the Korean Peninsula, it is necessary for South Korea to keep the US forces on its territory. Knowing this perfectly, Pyongyang demands the withdrawal of the US military forces in South Korea.
The US supported the bilateral talks between both Koreas on the eve of the PyongChang Olympics on the condition (or in the hope) that both parties touch on the North Korean nuclear issue. But so far no mass media at home and abroad have reported that they discussed the issue.
For fear of the North Korean delegation’s strong opposition, the South Korean delegation might have not brought up the issue. The reason why US Vice President Mike Pence avoided the North Korean delegation is clear: The US had no interest in a greeting ceremony with the North Korean leaders and actually wanted to show that the US officials could meet only when North Korean officials were willing to discuss the nuclear issue.
The Trump administration would have been disappointed if Moon had avoided any discussion of the North Korean nuclear issue. This will damage the close bond between South Korea and the US when the North Korean delegates emphasized the blood ties between North and South Koreans during their stay in South Korea, the US leadership must have had a uncomfortable feeling.
North Korea’s diplomacy and propaganda campaign during the Olympic period have been quite successful. If the Moon government becomes more interested in improving the South-North relationship than abolishing the North Korean nuclear program, it is neither a wise nor correct strategy.
The South might think that both sides become friendly, the North will ultimately abandon its nuclear program. It is a naive thinking. South Korea’s urgent task at the moment is to make North Korea abandon the latter’s nuclear and missile program. Otherwise, it will damage the US-ROK alliance and make the US-North Korea relationship worse than ever before.Park Sang-seek
Park Sang-seek is a former rector of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung-Hee University and the author of Globalized Korea and Localized Globe. -- Ed.