Nuclear stalemate likely to continue amid allies’ stern stance

2013-05-08 16:04

The prospects of an early resolution to the stalemate over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs dimmed Tuesday as the leaders of South Korea and the U.S. stopped short of making any strong proposal to reopen dialogue with Pyongyang. 

In their summit in Washington Presidents Park Geun-hye and Barack Obama repeated their positions that the allies would sternly deal with the North’s provocations, but leave open dialogue opportunities. They also underscored the vicious circle of provocations and rewards should end.

Experts said the summit did not meet expectations that it would set the mood for a turnaround from the heightened tensions on the peninsula.

“If Pyongyang thought its recent threats would drive a wedge between South Korea and the U.S. or somehow garner the North international respect, today is further evidence that North Korea has failed again,” Obama told a press conference following their first summit.

“The days when North Korea could create a crisis and elicit concessions -- those days are over. ... The burden is on Pyongyang to take meaningful steps to abide by its commitments and obligations, particularly the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Urging the North to choose a path to becoming a responsible member of the international community, Park said Pyongyang’s recent adoption of a policy aiming to concurrently develop its nuclear arsenal and economy would not succeed.

Park Hyeong-jung, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, noted the allies appeared cautious, and refrained from offering any new incentive to the North for dialogue, as there is little leeway at the moment for them to address the nuclear conundrum.

“The allies and the North remain poles apart over its denuclearization, and Seoul and Washington are still not sure about whether or not the North would soon set off provocations. All this appears to have been reflected in the leaders’ joint declaration,” he said, referring to the joint statement marking the 60th anniversary of the alliance.

Park added that because of the distrust toward Pyongyang and unfruitful engagement with it for the last two decades, Washington appeared to take more prudence about its approach toward the unpredictable regime.

“In February last year, Washington was very seriously frustrated over the North breaking the so-called Leap Day Deal. It also had some hopes for the young, new leader Kim Jong-un, but these hopes have all collapsed,” he said.

“Uncertainty over whether or not its policy toward the North would bear fruit apparently led to a more cautious stance on the part of the U.S.”

As an outcome of the summit, experts pointed to the U.S. support for Park’s trust-building peninsular peace process, which Washington has apparently been uncertain about given that the much-trumpeted initiative has yet to be fleshed out.

“President Park explained to Obama her peace initiative and the two leaders shared the view over its importance, which is a notable outcome of the summit,” said Kim Hyun-wook, the director-general of the Department of American Studies at Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

“The agreement to step up energy cooperation such as the development of shale gas and broadening the alliance to cover a wider range of issues is another outcome.”

Kim expressed concern that although Washington talked about leaving dialogue open, it appeared to be moving toward a tough stance with sanctions and more diplomatic pressure rather than striving to bring about dialogue with the North.

During the summit, another key issue was Seoul’s pursuit of the revision of a bilateral civilian nuclear energy pact. The leaders agreed on the need to accelerate efforts to conclude the negotiations at an early date.

Obama expressed optimism that the allies could reach a new deal that could be mutually agreeable. “I believe we can find a way to support South Korea’s energy and commercial needs even as we uphold our mutual commitments to prevent nuclear proliferation.”

Starting from next month, Seoul and Washington will hold senior-level consultations to narrow their gaps every three months. Seoul wants to gain Washington’s consent to reprocess spent fuel for a more efficient use of nuclear energy, while Washington is concerned about proliferation that could threaten its national security.

As to the transfer of wartime operational control slated for December 2015, the leaders reaffirmed the date of the handover.

During the press conference, Obama mentioned that the allies were “on track” for the OPCON transfer in 2015 whereas Park noted the two countries shared the view that the transfer should proceed in a way that strengthens combined defense capabilities.

Seoul and Washington will start assessing Seoul’s readiness during the allies’ Key Resolve command post exercise in March next year and the Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills in August. In August 2015, the allies are to make a final verification over Seoul’s readiness for the OPCON transfer.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)

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