What's behind South Korean president's new strategy on North Korea?

Unlike her predecessor, South Korea's President Park Gyeun-hye has not made closer links between North and South contingent on an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
South Korea's President Park Geun-hye delivers a speech at the opening ceremony of the Seoul Cyberspace Conference October 17, 2013.

For nearly 20 years, South Korea and the world’s biggest powers have sought to pry from North Korea a promise – that it would keep – to end its nuclear weapons program.

They have used carrots and they have used sticks. As inducements, the powers offered to build North Korea a nuclear reactor, provided fuel, and gave food. When that failed they have tried punishments, freezing Pyongyang out of the world financial system and imposing sanctions to starve the government there of all sorts of goods.

Yet twin clouds of steam from North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor, spotted last month in satellite images, suggest all those efforts have come to naught, and raise questions about how the international community – distracted by Iran and Syria – can deter North Korea's seemingly insatiable desire for nuclear weapons. 

US analysts and the South Korean intelligence agency say the steam indicates that after a six-year hiatus, Pyongyang has restarted its reactor, capable of producing enough plutonium each year to make one or two nuclear bombs as well as of generating electricity.

“North Korea has been consistent in the face of many different approaches,” says Daniel Pinkston, head of the Seoul office of the International Crisis Group think tank. “They continue to work on this stuff.”

South Korea's new policy

South Korea’s President Park Gyeun-hye, in office since February, has blended hard and soft lines toward her northern neighbor into a policy she calls a “trust building process.”

“We need to keep a balance between the carrot and the stick, security and exchanges,” South Korea’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told reporters last month. “We would like to take some time to unravel the problem step by step and hopefully strike up a relationship.”

Even Ms. Park’s allies acknowledge the policy has borne little fruit yet, aside from the recent reopening of a jointly operated industrial park just inside North Korean territory. There have been “no signs of reciprocity” from North Korea, says Lee Jung-hoon, South Korea’s new human rights ambassador. “Whatever she [Park] said and hoped for, she has not been given an opportunity to do it.”

Critics say the bid to build inter-Korean trust is an ad hoc policy without a clear plan or ultimate goal. “There is a lack of vision,” says Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. “It is very hard to see this policy of cooperation with North Korea succeeding.”

North Korea’s new young leader, Kim Jung-un, however, has made it clear that he wants to make economic development of his impoverished and isolated nation a priority. That might give South Korea, a natural partner in such a venture, an opening.

Unlike her hard-line predecessor, President Lee Myeung-bak, Park has not made closer links between North and South contingent on an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. She hopes that she can make parallel progress on the two tracks.

Washington biggest obstacle to nuclear talks?

On the nuclear front too, however, hopes are fading in Seoul that North Korea can be persuaded to abandon its weapons program. 

“It is very hard now to get rid of the weapons, because for Kim Jung-un the nuclear bomb justifies his regime,” says Mr. Chang. 

North Korea has carried out three nuclear tests, most recently in February this year, and is believed to possess two or three crude nuclear bombs.

Under pressure from China, patron of the six-nation talks designed to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, North Korea has agreed to restart the talks that earlier this year it had dismissed as “dead.” 

Washington, however, is wary of rejoining the talks, suspended since 2008, without concrete signs that Pyongyang is serious about winding down its nuclear program. The North Koreans have gone back on too many promises, US officials say, for them to have any faith in Pyongang’s words.

But North Korea is scarcely a priority in Washington at the moment, where Secretary of State John Kerry is preoccupied with Iran, Syria, and other Middle Eastern issues. US officials are fed up with North Korea to the point where “the fatigue factor is really serious,” says Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean foreign minister and ambassador to Washington. “US policymakers have the sense that North Korea is a no-win situation.” 

Washington’s conditions are currently the biggest obstacle to a resumption of the six-party talks, and “time is not on our side,” worries Moon Chung-in, once an adviser to former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, architect of the “Sunshine” policy of opening to North Korea. “All the time, North Korea is further developing its nuclear and missile capabilities.” 

“North Korea feels it must have a hedging strategy against an American strike,” adds Prof. Moon. “They remember Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan.”

Beyond the strategic protection that nuclear weapons offer Pyongyang, says Dr. Han, power politics in the North “make it very unlikely they will give them up. Because nobody now has the stature to end the nuclear program; it would be the undoing of anyone who tried.”

Talks between equals?

North Korea has enshrined its nuclear status in its Constitution, though the rest of the world refuses to recognize that status. One of Washington’s fears about resumed negotiations is that Pyongyang might insist on talking as an equal, and refuse to get rid of its nuclear weapons unless Washington does the same. 

Constitutions can be amended and re-amended, points out John Delury, an expert on North Korea at Yonsei University in Seoul. But “in the near term, there is no way they will give up their nuclear weapons,” he predicts.

That’s because “the nuclear deterrent is central to Kim Jung-un at this point” as he consolidates his authority, Prof. Delury argues, and because “the economic development push is predicated on a nuclear deterrent making them feel safe and allowing a smaller defense budget.”

Though “we haven’t passed the point of no return where it would be absurd to even talk to them about denuclearization,” says Delury, there is not much point in doing so at the moment. And in the meantime, “the further they go, the higher will be the cost of persuading them to give it up.”

“I don’t want to say that it’s too late; we want to cling on to our hopes,” says Prof. Lee, the human rights ambassador. “But if we really want to denuclearize North Korea, the international community must make far greater commitments and sacrifices, and the US should be actively doing something. If things stay as they are, I am very pessimistic.”

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