NEW YORK AND TORONTO — From the Bush administration perspective, South Korea's nonchalance about the North Korean nukes borders on madness. The totalitarian regime in Pyongyang is about as evil as they come, and much of its malice is directed at South Korea. North Korea has even threatened to turn Seoul into a nuclear "sea of fire."
But there is actually an internal logic to the South Korean position: Not only does South Korea not fear the North Korean nukes; it seemingly welcomes them with open arms.
In Seoul's long-term calculus, the North Korean bomb is the "Korean bomb," which will benefit Seoul after eventual reunification. Such a quixotic view is epitomized by South Korean popular culture. A quasi- fascist novel about the two Koreas collaborating on developing nukes and using them to bully Japan has sold more than 5 million copies since its publication in 1994.
In order to obtain Seoul's cooperation in resolving the North Korea nuclear crisis, the Bush administration must understand South Korea's worrisome position - and the public support it enjoys - on the nuclear issue.
Many South Koreans no longer see North Korea as a threat. Instead of a mortal enemy, North Korea has become transmogrified into a sympathetic brother in the South Korean imagination.
This transmogrification is mainly government-induced. Since the election of the longtime dissident Kim Dae Jung to the presidency in 1997, Seoul has pursued the "Sunshine Policy" - a policy designed to appease Pyongyang's murderous regime through massive economic bribery.
To sell this policy to a skeptical electorate, Kim spearheaded a comprehensive propaganda campaign to reconstruct the South's image of the North. This campaign included government censorship and intimidation of those who would criticize North Korea. As a result of this ongoing campaign, South Koreans are now increasingly kept in the dark about the true nature of Pyongyang's gulag state.
Even more troubling, however, is Seoul's belief that it may actually benefit from the North Korean nukes. This view is based on two premises:
First, Seoul believes nukes will one day guarantee security for a unified Korea and thereby free it from its traditional dependence on foreign powers. This desire to achieve a self-sufficient security posture was behind Park Chung Hee's US-aborted drive to develop a bomb in the 1970s. It may have also contributed to the recently revealed secret nuclear experiments that "rogue" South Korean scientists undertook as late as in 2000, which has been hushed by Washington to avoid friction with Seoul.
Second, Seoul believes going nuclear would confer it the international prestige that it feels the country deserves for its "miracle" economy but has yet to obtain. Such intangibles loom large in the minds of the fiercely nationalistic Koreans.
Meanwhile, the North Korean nuclear crisis may assist South Korea's nuclear ambitions in the short term even if there is no reunification and Seoul doesn't gain possession of Pyongyang's nukes. A nuclear Pyongyang has already dramatically increased the pressure on Tokyo - which has also been threatened with the "sea of fire" rhetoric - to go nuclear. The nuclearization of its historic enemy will then make it easier for Seoul to justify the development of its own nukes.
These differences between Washington and Seoul regarding Pyongyang's nukes will continue to frustrate the Bush administration's attempt to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. While it is unlikely that Pyongyang would give up its nukes without a credible threat of military action, the current leftist government in Seoul, headed by Kim Dae Jung's successor Roh Moo Hyun, would never back a military solution. Given that Seoul bankrolls Pyongyang, it would also be difficult for the US to impose workable economic sanctions. Even the Chinese, whose influence the Bush administration has come to rely on as the last best hope, have complained that Seoul's appeasement emboldens Pyongyang and renders it less amenable to Beijing's pressure.
Washington must therefore disabuse South Koreans of their twin fantasy of North Korean benevolence and the utility of possessing nuclear arms.
This means, in the first place, Seoul's propaganda that North Korea is benign must be countered. The South Korean public must be made to see North Korea for what it is: an evil, totalitarian regime that murders its own people and even today threatens to communize the South.
Second, South Korea must be reminded of the grave costs of pursuing the nuclear option for itself. In fact, the Bush administration lost a golden opportunity to do so when it failed to refer South Korea to the UN Security Council when the "rogue" nuclear experiments were exposed last summer. That failure revealed that the Bush administration was suffering from a fantasy of its own that the leftist government in Seoul would reciprocate Washington's goodwill with a more cooperative approach regarding North Korea.
The stakes are high for Washington in South Korea. Failure to change the South Korean view about North Korea's nukes will not only perpetuate paralysis of the Bush administration's North Korea policy, it will also raise the specter of East Asia engulfed in a nuclear arms race.
• Won Joon Choe is a citizen of South Korea and writes frequently about Korean politics. Jack Kim is a student at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School.