Gathering Places


Sunday, February 9, 2003


A little advice for
S. Korea’s next leader

The recent visit by Republic of Korea 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 long-time student of Korean security affairs, I'd like to offer South Korea's incoming leader a few words of advice.

First, President-elect Roh, you should take immediate steps to reaffirm the R.O.K.-U.S. security alliance. You are a firm supporter of the Sunshine Policy, whose first principle is that North Korean aggression will not be tolerated. This requires a strong, credible deterrent, best provided through an unequivocal reaffirmation of our alliance.

You also must make it clear exactly where South Korea stands on the nuclear issue. Pyongyang has been claiming that the current stand-off pits the North and South Korean people against the United States. It must be firmly disabused of this notion. For 50 years, America has stated that an attack on South Korea is an attack on the United States; the reverse also is true. Pyongyang needs to understand this; so do the Korean people.

You should continue to speak with one voice with Washington in demanding that North Korea immediately and verifiably 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 it be induced to change its 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 Non-Proliferation 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 North's "eternal president," Kim Il-sung. Uranium- or plutonium-enrichment programs and reprocessing spent fuel violate these promises.

I also urge you to endorse Washington's multilateral approach. Pyongyang turned a disagreement with Washington about 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. Insisting instead on direct U.S.-DPRK negotiations turns 1994 on its head. Recall the uproar when the United States cut Seoul out of the negotiations for the Agreed Framework? Remember also the pledge by Presidents Clinton and Kim Young-sam in 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. But you should reject Pyongyang's demand for a U.S.-DPRK Non-Aggression Treaty because it undermines South Korea's national security by cutting it out of the peace-making process.

Finally, I would urge you (and President Kim) 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.

I am not saying that military action is desirable at this point. But demanding that the North stop its nuclear activities while reassuring Pyongyang it has nothing to fear will hardly persuade Kim Jong-il to stop escalating the crisis. All options must be on the table. 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?

Force already has been used. In December, a North Korean merchant ship was stopped and boarded while en route 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 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 (self-inflicted) isolation from the international community ... or much worse.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute, and senior editor of Comparative Connections.

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