HONOLULU — A recent visit by South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun’s foreign-policy transition team reveals that the incoming administration’s policy toward North Korea is still very much in the formative stage. As a longtime student of Korean security affairs, allow me to offer South Korea’s incoming leader a few humble words of advice.
First, take immediate, positive steps to reaffirm the South Korean-U.S. security alliance. You (like myself) are a firm supporter of the “sunshine policy.” Its first principle is that North Korean aggressive behavior will not be tolerated. This requires a strong, credible deterrent, best provided through an unequivocal reaffirmation of the U.S.-South Korean alliance relationship.
Second, make it clear exactly where South Korea stands on the nuclear issue. Pyongyang has been claiming that the current standoff pits the Korean people (North and South) against the United States. It must be firmly disabused of this notion. We are treaty allies. For 50 years, America has stated that an attack on South Korea is an attack on the U.S.; the reverse is also true. Neutrality is not an option. Pyongyang needs to understand this; so do the Korean people.
Third, continue to speak with one voice with Washington in demanding that North Korea immediately come into full compliance with its international nuclear commitments. Pyongyang is trying to drive a wedge between our two nations. Only by convincing North Korea that its actions are actually strengthening our mutual resolve can Pyongyang be induced to change its current confrontational behavior.
Pyongyang must be told that its actions are unacceptable to the South Korean people. They violate not only the Agreed Framework and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but also the 1992 Basic Agreement and South-North Joint Agreement on Denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. The latter represent promises made to South Korea by the late Kim Il Sung, the North’s “eternal president.” Uranium- or plutonium-enrichment programs and the reprocessing of spent fuel all violate these promises.
I also urge you to endorse Washington’s multilateral approach. Pyongyang turned a disagreement with Washington over the 1994 Agreed Framework into an international issue when it expelled the International Atomic Energy Agency. The next logical step is for the IAEA to bring the matter before the U.N. Security Council, something South Korea should endorse and support (remember when it was U.S. unilateralism that everyone was condemning?).
Insisting instead on direct U.S.-North Korean negotiations turns the 1994 agreement on its head. Recall the uproar when the U.S. cut Seoul out of the negotiations leading up to the Agreed Framework? Remember also the pledge by South Korean President Kim Young Sam and his U.S. counterpart Bill Clinton in April 1996 that “separate negotiations between the United States and North Korea on peace-related issues cannot be considered”?
I agree that some form of direct dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang must eventually occur, perhaps within the “5+5” setting currently being suggested. But you should forcefully reject Pyongyang’s demand for a bilateral U.S.-North Korean nonaggression treaty, not just because it would never gain U.S. Senate approval, but more fundamentally because it undermines South Korean national security interests by cutting Seoul out of the peacemaking process. This is a longtime North Korean objective that all previous South Korean and U.S. presidents have wisely rejected.
Finally, I would urge you (and President Kim Dae Jung) to stop ruling out response options in advance. Stating that sanctions and the use of force are totally unacceptable leaves us with few options other than complete capitulation to Pyongyang’s demands or accepting a nuclear weapons-equipped North Korea as a fait accompli; neither is acceptable.
In Kosovo, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization initially proclaimed that the use of ground forces had been ruled out. Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s response was to hunker down. When ground forces began to deploy around his border, he got out his white flags. Likewise, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein refused to allow U.N. inspectors in to do their job until he was convinced that military action was imminent.
I am not saying that military action is desirable or advisable at this point in time. But demanding that the North stop its nuclear activities while at the same time reassuring Pyongyang it has nothing to fear will hardly persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to stop escalating the crisis. All options must be on the table. As former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry recently reminded us, “the ingredients of a possible solution must include the credibility of our determination to remove the nuclear threat even if it risks war.” Allowing North Korea to pursue a nuclear weapons program that will put the world — including South Korea — at even greater risk is the only option that must be ruled out in advance.
While no one wants to talk about a preemptive military strike, it should not be ruled out. Nor should we endorse today’s conventional wisdom that even a limited military action will automatically unleash a holocaust (as Pyongyang endlessly threatens). If Pyongyang’s primary objective is regime survival, would it really launch a suicidal attack in response to a limited military action (aimed at destroying its nuclear weapons production capability), knowing that the end result would be the complete destruction of the regime it is desperately trying to preserve?
Remember also that force has already been used. In December, a North Korean merchant ship was stopped and boarded while en route to the Middle East. Had its missile cargo not had a legitimate buyer, it would now be resting on the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Surely you would not want to imply that future attempts to ship taboo weapons to taboo countries (or to terrorists) should not likewise be stopped?
As long as Pyongyang believes that its policies are driving a wedge between Washington and Seoul, it is likely to keep up its escalation game. And as long as it believes the worst we will do in return is beg it to behave, Pyongyang will have little incentive to stop its extortion.
Mr. President-elect, Kim Jong Il needs to hear from you, in no uncertain terms, that his continued refusal to cooperate with the international community — and to live up to his (and his father’s) earlier promises to the South — will result in isolation from the international community . . . or much worse.
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