In Seoul, a somber reflection on the past 20 years imbues the minds of the people. To many here, the third nuclear test by North Korea on Feb. 12 was an official proclamation that the strategies of Washington and Seoul for the past two decades to deter the Pyongyang regime from acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities had failed.
Unlike the previous two nuclear tests by the North in 2006 and 2009, in which the effectiveness and appropriateness of the two competing sets of policies (i.e., a big stick policy versus an appeasement one) were being extensively
debated, this nuclear test in February, coupled with Pyongyang’s increased military threat in the past couple of weeks, has made Seoulites admit the cold, hard truth: It has been two decades of remarkable deceit. The “wasted 20 years” has since become a key theme of press reports and talking heads here in Seoul. Which means the North has fully taken advantage of the 20 years ― every minute of it.
Many people ask a fundamental question: why do we keep losing this game vis-a-vis the North, despite the fact that virtually the entire international community has fallen in line with us and that a web of tight sanctions has been in place? At its core, the current disaster has stemmed from the unfortunate misperception that the North Korean nuclear program can be bought out. As it turns out, to them this program is way too precious to put a price tag on it. As one would say, there is something that money can’t buy. The U.S. and South Korean policy makers have failed to be apprised of the depth of North’s desire for a nuclear arsenal. Maybe they were, but only superficially.
The situation has reached the point where whatever the North says now, the United States and South Korea will not believe it. The almost complete loss of faith makes it more difficult or unrealistic for Washington and Seoul to engage Pyongyang to find a breakthrough.
As the level of frustration goes up, so does a demand from the general public for more positive action. Although neither practical nor realistic, the taboo discussion of Seoul’s own nuclear armament, citing the example of Israel and others, is being touted by some opinion leaders and groups in Korea. In fact, one of the recent polls conducted by Gallup Korea showed 66 percent of those surveyed were in favor of Seoul’s nuclear armament for its own self-defense. Anyone who knows the gravity and consequence such a course of action would entail would readily know that it is not a viable option for South Korea, at least under the current circumstances. The almost obvious economic sanctions, the domino effect on nuclear armament in the region, and more important, the weakening of the U.S.-Korea alliance would leave Seoul shortchanged in the end. So, this option of a conventional response, as seen in Israel or Pakistan, would not work in this part of the world.
Upon the sudden appearance of nuclear armament arguments in Korea, apparently frightened Washington immediately issued a “don’t-even-think-about-it” warning and keeps reaffirming its commitment for the nuclear umbrella for the South. But given that the whole point of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development is to stop the U.S. from abiding by its promise to extend its umbrella to South Korea, the auto-play statements of commitment, without explaining the durability of the umbrella under any circumstances, do not seem to offer an effective solution.
All in all, the current situation surrounding the North Korean nuclear program and the recent development between the two Koreas has rendered the conventional framework of discourse inoperative and ineffective. Pretending that there is a solution nearby is hypocritical and self-deceitful. Such false pretense has enabled North Korea play its own game ― through thin and thick ― for the past 20 years. It is time for a new game plan, a plan to turn around the losing streak. Perhaps one thing to consider in this regard is how to make Beijing fully aware that an unbridled, nuclear-armed North Korea would undermine its national interest. In light of this, it is interesting to watch the reportedly growing complaints in China against North Korea after its nuclear test.
On the surface, everything remains the same in Seoul ― as calm and stable as ever. But a lot is going on in the minds of the people in Seoul. Nothing has changed, but a lot has changed since Feb. 12.
By Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at the School of Law, Hanyang University, in Seoul. Formerly he practiced law as an associate attorney with Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. ― Ed.