ICAS Special Contribution


Seoul's Nuclear Amnesia

Donald Kirk

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3289
Email: icas@icasinc.org

Biographic Sketch & Links: Donald Kirk

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution with written permission from the author to ICAS.

Seoul's Nuclear Amnesia

Donald Kirk

Asian Wall Street Journal

SEOUL -- Ask almost any Korean you meet here whether he or she views North Korea's nuclear weapons--or ground forces just north of the line between the two Koreas--as a real and present danger, and the answer is likely to be a dismissive shrug. The ruckus among diplomats and politicians over North Korean nukes and the size of the North Korean military machine reverberates like background noise. The inclination here is to ignore it all while going about one's normal business. And after North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il told a Chinese interlocutor this week that everything was fine and he could return to multilateral disarmament talks, this blasé attitude will only grow stronger. So much for North Korea's pullout on Feb. 10 from talks about talks. That "bombshell," as North Korea's own rhetoric put it, seems now to have been all about affirming Kim Jong Il's "courageous" stand in the runup to his Feb. 16 birthday.

But rather than encourage a carefree attitude, the North Korean dictator's antics should be instilling frustration. Incomprehensibly, however, many of South Korea's leading lights have once again swallowed the North Korean bait.

Former president Kim Dae Jung, originator of the "sunshine" policy of reconciliation, seems just as taken in by Kim Jong Il as he was when the two embraced in Pyongyang in June 2000 at the outset of the first and only inter-Korean summit. It was that summit that set in motion an entire chain of events that may have raised false hopes but failed to solve the intractable problems that keep the vast majority of North Koreans in fear and poverty, and the rest of the world in hock to a megalomaniac.

No sooner had Kim Dae Jung heard the news of Kim Jong Il's declared willingness to return to the table than he was making demands of--guess who?--the United States. "The North has said it will give up its nuclear option if the U.S. gives it security assurances," he told a Korean interviewer, "so it is only fitting that Washington offer something in return."

Let's just say that Kim Jong Il did suspend operations, to outward appearances, at the Yongbyon complex where the North is fashioning warheads with plutonium. What's to bring an end to development of the still more dangerous highly enriched uranium program, going on in caves and underground complexes? Remember, North Korea continues to deny the existence of the uranium program after having previously confessed it at a meeting with a visiting U.S. delegation in 2002. Has Kim Dae Jung forgotten it was that revelation that precipitated the subsequent breakdown of the 1994 Agreed Framework under which North Korea had supposedly stopped all work on nuclear weapons in return for the promise of twin light-water nuclear reactors?

Kim Dae Jung's advice, however, does not stop there. He also opined in his interview this week that the U.S. should offer a peace treaty in place of the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953 and that Washington should offer to normalize relations with Pyongyang and also promise to make it a member of the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank.

Such statements, alas, are descriptive of the general attitude in governing circles in the South. They reveal the fantasy world in which South Korean policy-makers under Kim's successor, President Roh Moo Hyun, continue to live. Suggest to someone here that membership in the IMF and ADB wouldn't do anything other than enrich the elite of Pyongyang and perpetuate the rule of Kim Jong Il and, once again, they may shrug.

Mr. Roh is building on the policy of reconciliation, fine-tuning it in the illusory hope that every compromise, every failure to bargain hard for real returns, every show of goodness will bring a reciprocal response from Pyongyang.

It was in that spirit that Chung Dong-young, unification minister, said the government would provide "humanitarian" aid regardless of whether the North returned to talks. All Mr. Chung asked was that Pyongyang agree to a meeting between North and South Korean officials so they could discuss all the help the South wanted to shower on the North. For good measure, Mr. Chung added that the United States had to "recognize North Korea as a negotiation partner."

The problem, however, goes much further than dragging North Korean diplomats to Beijing. The fact is, the entire process, talks included, is dragging. There have been no visits of families divided by the Korean War in more than half a year, even though many are quite aged and do not have that much time to visit relatives they haven't seen in half a century. The railroad to the Northern industrial complex at Kaesong is still not done. One small factory has opened there—an experiment that promises to be as unprofitable as other South Korean ventures in the North. The tours to Mount Kumkang, on the eastern side of the peninsula, lose money for Hyundai companies.

Park Jin, international chairman of the conservative opposition Grand National Party, is one of the few politicians here who seems seriously worried about the North Korean problem. He says Seoul should demand that China "be more forthright" in pressuring the North not just to come to the negotiating table but also to change. As for the North Korean nuclear threat, he says "We are concerned this might affect growth in the South" and "the only way to confront this problem is to change North Korea's mind." But such words do not inspire much confidence. South Korea itself has to get tougher in the face of this foe, to demand real returns for real rewards.

An excellent opportunity to do so may be in the offing with the gift of half a million tons of fertilizer that the North is asking the South to donate. The South Koreans should refuse to hand it over until the North not only comes to the table but unconditionally stops demanding "conditions." North Korea might balk and squawk at first, raise the noise level a few decibels, issue threats and make headlines. Surely all that would be preferable to the holocaust that may ensue if South Korea--and China--continue to quail before a dictator who owes his power more to the aid provided by his enemies than to the people he subjugates and terrorizes.

Donald Kirk has been covering Korea since the first North-South Korean Red Cross talks in Seoul in 1972.

This page last updated 3/2/2005 jdb

ICAS Fellow
ICAS Speakers
& Discussants