After shelling Yeonpyeong Island and sinking the Navy corvette Cheonan, North Korea has now shifted its attitude and is calling for inter-Korean dialogue. China has long urged dialogue and the resumption of six-party nuclear talks, so it will naturally press for talks, and even the United States appears to be leaning toward dialogue. The Barack Obama administration, though still reluctant to go back to the six-party talks, will eventually opt for dialogue lest it should be dragged into a major war over a small island in the West Sea.
The South is once again being tricked by the North. In the past 20 years, the North has repeated the pattern of making gestures toward dialogue and reconciliation, rupturing negotiations by presenting unreasonable demands, creating tension with nuclear tests, shooting and terrorism, and making charm offensives to ease the tension. Now the financial and rice aid it enjoyed from the leftwing governments in the South over the last decade has been cut off by the Lee Myung-bak administration, Pyongyang wants to talk, perhaps because it feels that it has shaken the South to some extent with its military provocations and nuclear threats.
The North's most powerful weapon on such occasions is the nuclear threat. After displaying its uranium enrichment facility, the North is now trying to scare by threatening "nuclear strikes" in its New Year editorial. Be it six-party talks or inter-Korean dialogue, the key words have always been nuclear arms. The South promised "mutual prosperity" if the North denuclearizes, and the U.S. has pursued denuclearization on the peninsula as the goal of the six-party talks.
But few experts or politicians believe the North will actually abandon its nuclear program. They know that the North Korean regime believes the country would have no future if it gives up its nuclear weapons. In other words, the parties to the nuclear talks are operating on false premises, trotting out their goals out of habit without any belief that they can achieve them. Fully aware that the North won't denuclearize, they clamor for its denuclearization at every available occasion. It is the ultimate in hypocrisy and bad faith.
The way out of the hypocrisy trap is for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons too. Only when Seoul develops a nuclear bomb will the way for substantive negotiations between the two Koreas open. Paradoxically, denuclearization is possible on the Korean Peninsula only when both Koreas have nuclear arms, exercise mutual restraint and conduct nuclear disarmament talks. We can no longer entrust our lives and territorial security to the incompetence of world powers that have failed to settle the North Korean nuclear issue for over two decades. We have to take charge, and to do that we need to develop nuclear weapons.
The regions most exposed to the threat of war are the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East and Africa. Nuclear balance is maintained in the Mideast and Africa. But on the Korean Peninsula the North can make nuclear threats and the South trembles. Some say the U.S. nuclear umbrella plays its role, but having nuclear arms and relying on someone else’s nuclear protection are two very different things.
The chances are nil that Washington, which trembled at the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, would risk a war with China by deploying its nuclear umbrella when the North launches a nuclear attack. That is the limitation of the nuclear umbrella, and there lies the reason why Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons can be subject to negotiations, but a nuclear umbrella cannot.
The South's nuclear arms would, strictly speaking, be neither offensive nor defensive. They would be there to enforce restraint, establish balance between the two Koreas, and ensure negotiations. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were able to negotiate about their nuclear weapons precisely because of what was called "mutually assured destruction." Without it, the negotiations would have failed.
Certain conditions should be set for South Korea's development of nuclear arms. First a deadline should be set for the six-party talks to achieve North Korea's denuclearization or establish at least a failsafe control mechanism. If they fail to meet it, the South will go ahead and develop its own nuclear weapons. And Seoul must proclaim to the world that it will voluntarily discard its nuclear development program when tensions on the peninsula end for good or reunification is achieved. It must make clear that it has no interest in acquiring nuclear arms for their own sake.
At a time when the whole world is helpless in the face of North Korea's nuclear weapons, South Korean leaders need the courage and wisdom to persuade the public and the world that the North will negotiate properly only when the South, too, develop nuclear weapons. Vigorous debate about acquiring our own nuclear arms is needed. They are the key to denuclearization of the peninsula.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Dae-joong