The Nuclear Shadow: New Thinking is Required to Solve the Security Dilemma in Korean Peninsula

Beijing Review, NO.42, October 20, 2016 | 作者: Shi Yongming | 时间: 2016-11-02 | 责编: Wang Jiapei
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The nuclear test conducted in its northeastern area by North Korea on September 9 added to growing tensions in the region. So far, North Korea has carried out five nuclear tests. Talks on denuclearization on the peninsula remain suspended and the possibility of achieving any progress seems increasingly distant.

North Korea's ongoing experiments suggest the nation's leadership remains fully committed to its nuclear program. However, the United States and South Korea have again responded by threatening to use force, underlining their lack of flexibility in handling the sensitive issue. The military pressure imposed by Washington and Seoul is likely to further antagonize Pyongyang, hardening its resolve to possess nuclear weapons. More critically, the confrontation may cause further misunderstanding and misjudgment, leading to a preemptive strike.

Escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula underline the failure of U.S. foreign policy in effectively containing the nuclear crisis. Therefore, all parties involved should seek new methods for solving the puzzle.


Nuclear program unchecked

North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests so far this year. The first, according to North Korean sources, was a hydrogen bomb experiment that took place on January 6. The flurry of testing over the last few years implies Pyongyang may be approaching nuclear capacity.

In the 1990s, North Korea repeatedly claimed that it would not seek to develop nuclear weapons and all nuclear energy research would be limited to peaceful use. However, over the past two decades, North Korea has abandoned denuclearization and begun nuclear missile development. Why did it change its policy?

Following the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, East Asia—including the Korean Peninsula—faced an unprecedented opportunity for political compromise and national reconciliation. During this period, North Korea wished to strike an agreement with the United States, which was considered the biggest threat to Pyongyang. Under such circumstances, the two nations signed the Agreed Framework in 1994. Pyongyang agreed to give up its nuclear program. In return, Washington pledged to help North Korea build two 1,000-megawatt capacity light-water reactors in order to ease its massive energy shortage. Nuclear tension was eased.

However, the foundation for political compromise was undermined by the unilateralist foreign policy pursued by the administration of George W. Bush at the beginning of the 21st century. During this period, China continued to promote dialogue as well as maintaining peace and stability in the region.

North Korea was willing to attend six-party talks on its nuclear weapons program. In September 2005, the governments of North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan issued the 9/19 Joint Statement after the six-party talks, which was considered a milestone in multilateral negotiations.

Later, Washington imposed financial sanctions on North Korea and ignored its call for dialogue, irritating the country's leadership. Pyongyang believed that nuclear testing was the only way to pull the United States back to the negotiating table. However, South Korea's policy toward North Korea gradually became more hardline, with Japan also hardening its stance.

The six-party talks were difficult to maintain in light of the widening divisions among all sides. Consequently, North Korea became increasingly resolute to develop nuclear weapons.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who inherited power in 2011, appears unshaken on the nuclear program. In May 2012, North Korea went so far as to declare in its amended constitution that it had become a nuclear-armed state. Unsurprisingly, the United States refused to recognize North Korea's nuclear status, though Pyongyang no longer considers a nuclear weapon to be a political bargaining chip. It has become a genuine possibility on the Korean Peninsula.

While ignoring such changes in the regional situation, South Korean President Park Geun Hye continues to believe South Korea could triumph over North Korea and lead the reunification process.

The Iranian nuclear deal is one of the few diplomatic achievements made by the Obama administration. However the president has made no progress on the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula and Washington refuses to hold bilateral talks with Pyongyang. In view of America's hardline policy, North Korea might believe that speeding up the development of its nuclear program will ensure its security and force Washington to start dialogue. It is very likely that North Korea will carry out its sixth nuclear test in the near future.


Failure of U.S. policy

As for the current situation in the Korean Peninsula, the United States wins in the short term by isolating Pyongyang, but loses in the long term by hurting the parties involved.

After the Cold War, the core objective of U.S. foreign policy has been to prevent any country from challenging U.S. hegemony. From former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush through to Barack Obama, American foreign policy has served this purpose.

In recent years, U.S. foreign policy has caused much chaos around the world. Under the pretense of safeguarding human rights and spreading democracy, U.S.-led military intervention has stoked further conflict and unrest in large swathes of the Middle East and North Africa, resulting in millions being displaced from their homes. When commenting on international justice, Washington should not ignore the humanitarian disasters of its own making, caused by its calamitous interventionist policies.

In a sense, the United States should accept some of the blame for North Korea's nuclear tests. Based on its strategic interests, Washington refuses to hold direct bilateral talks of any kind with Pyongyang. Technically speaking, North Korea, South Korea and the United States have remained at war for more than half a century. Washington regularly stresses its demand for North Korea to disarm first, and such an unequal prerequisite has stalled progress, as both South Korea and Japan are under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Furthermore, under the U.S. brand of "leadership," North Korea and South Korea have not realized national reconciliation. Instead, the two states, which share the same ancestry, have again resorted to confrontation.

Increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula have given Washington the opportunity to "kill two birds with one stone." Seoul has agreed to deploy THAAD, a missile defense system the Pentagon has long desired to run in South Korea. Although Washington claims THAAD would be used to counter the North Korea threat, China and Russia are probably the real targets of the deployment, which has a range incorporating much Chinese and Russian territories but would have little impact in case of a possible strike from North Korea.

Ultimately, the current U.S. policy cannot ensure peace and stability in the region. North Korea is growing more volatile under pressure from South Korea and the United States. To eliminate this threat, a preemptive war might be an option for Washington. This would trigger a nuclear disaster in northeastern Asia. Currently, the Korean Peninsula faces a huge dilemma. To solve the nuclear issue, Washington must rethink its policy and begin much-needed dialogue with Pyongyang.

As Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in a statement at the General Debate of the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly on September 22, "On the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, it is imperative to achieve denuclearization and maintain peace and stability both on the peninsula and in the region. It is important to address issues through dialogue and consultation, and effectively uphold the international nuclear non-proliferation regime."

The UN should play an important role in promoting denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. The United States always calls for the UN Security Council to adopt heftier sanctions against North Korea but it has been proven that sanctions can't solve all the problems. All parties involved should explore a new approach in dealing with the nuclear issue, under UN supervision. It is hard to realize, but it warrants a serious effort to pursue an alternative strategy.




Shi Yongming is an associate researcher of the Asia-Pacific region at the China Institute of International Studies.



Source: Beijing Review, NO.42, October 20, 2016.