Kyungmin Cho “Look Before You Leap”

This is Kyungmin Cho’s opinion post regarding the “Peace Summits” to be held among the two Koreas and the United States. He is a senior at the Elliott School of International Affairs, and the President to Korean International Studies Organization (KISO). He expanded his professional experiences at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in D.C. and the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea.

The content of this article does not reflect the official opinions of the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s).

Will there be a peace-settlement in the Korean peninsula? It seems likely, after the recent high-level talks between the two Koreas. President Moon’s efforts eased tensions through various means, including his prior suggestions toward North Korea to hold peace talks and send South Korean envoys to crystallize the true virtue of PyeongChang Winter Olympics: peace and unity through the medium of sports. While the nation is buoyant with the possible inter-Korean and US-NK summits, there are several points to be considered to gain practical results from the future peace negotiations.

First, South Korea must not neglect the possibility that this peace procedure could lead to the repetition of history. North Korea has developed its nuclear program since the early 1970s. After signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, Pyongyang suddenly threatened to quit the NPT when IAEA demanded access to North Korea’s nuclear sites in 1993. Thanks to the diplomatic efforts, North Korea remained in NPT and signed the 1994 Agreement with the US, which promised Pyongyang with enormous international aid packages in exchange for dismantlement of its graphite reactors. The agreement could have been a historical step toward the denuclearized Korean peninsula, only if the international agencies did not find out in 1999 that North Korea was illegally importing technology and centrifuges from Pakistan to secretly continue its development of nuclear weapons. With George W. Bush labeling Pyongyang as one of the “Axis of Evil” in 2002, North Korea withdrew from the NPT a year later, and declared itself as a nuclear power. The hidden element of manipulation, thus led to critical results: North Korea has conducted six nuclear missile tests since 2006, while the Obama administration neglected the issue under the name of “Strategic Patience”. Now that North Korea managed to continue its nuclear programs amid the international economic sanctions, and Kim Jong-Un’s Byeongjin Strategy now requires the economic development. Troublesome is the speculation that even if North Korea engages in “denuclearization”, the accumulated technologies and its nuclear program can be revived after a series of financial aid helps Pyongyang survive through economic instability. Considering that North Korea’s military provocations, such as the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong (2002) and the first nuclear test (2006), took place amidst the Sunshine Policy of the South Korean government, South Korea must be vigilante in Pyeongyang’s caprice.

Second, the Moon Administration must perceive the different perspectives between Seoul and Pyongyang on the ways and means to proceed the “denuclearization process”. Both South Korea and the United States believe that the denuclearization must entail immediate and irreversible destruction of Pyongyang’s entire nuclear weaponry and the production facilities. Also crucial is the transparent disclosure of such processes through continual inspections from IAEA. However, North Korea may call for rather ambiguous terms of denuclearization. Kim Jong-Un may call for the peace settlement with North Korea’s status as a nuclear state, but with a guarantee of non-aggression toward its neighboring nations and the United States. If not, Pyongyang may also insist on the gradual elimination of its nuclear warheads, of which, however, the exact numbers have not been identified. Lest there be future conflicts triggered by confusion, the upcoming summits must clarify Seoul’s definition of denuclearization, and that “peace” cannot coexist with the nuclear imbalance of terror.

Third, the genuineness of Kim Jong-Un’s intention to “denuclearize” must be perused. Aside from the disparities between each party’s definition of denuclearization, we must ask ourselves a critical question: “Does North Korea really want to denuclearize?” North Korea is a totalitarian state under the dictatorship of Kim Jong Un. Residents in North Korea have been forfeited of their basic human rights under the severe national surveillance system. The ruthless murders, tortures, and contemptuous disregards for their civil rights are being conducted to maintain the regime’s status quo. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-Un has been aware of the possible insurgency scenarios from either the disgruntled public or the politico-military elites, and Pyongyang’s nuclear program creates a partial sense of nationalistic pride and legitimacy by portraying Kim as a strong leader. Even in the outbreak of revolts, Kim’s nuclear arsenal will prevent any international military interventions that could easily topple down the regime, especially considering the case of Libya. During the Arab Spring, when Gaddafi was an inch close to quelling the armed protesters, Obama decided to send in the “humanitarian intervention” that completely turned the tide of the revolt, directly leading to the Gaddafi’s death. Like North Korea, Libya has continued its clandestine nuclear program until Gaddafi rolled it back in 2003 to avoid further economic sanctions. The precedent of Libya must have engraved a notion into Kim that he will not be able to keep the denuclearized regime intact. Here, not only the human rights issues should be fully addressed during the negotiation process, but also the level of Pyongyang’s authenticity should be examined by thorough inspections of fulfillment.

There is no doubt that this inter-Korean summit in April will be a historic moment. Nevertheless, the Moon Administration should strive to obtain precise intelligence of Kim’s intentions and his future schemes lest the history be repeated.

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