June 04, 2018 13:19
U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday made the startling claim that rewarding North Korea for denuclearization will cost America nothing. "I think South Korea will do it. I think China -- I think, frankly, China will help out. I think that Japan will help out. No, I don't think the United States is going to have to spend." Trump makes many startling claims, few of them true, but this one is particularly alarming. Denuclearization will entail both direct and indirect expenses and financial rewards.
The direct costs alone of the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons and facilities are estimated in the billions of dollars North Korea will also demand compensation and economic rewards after prolonged international sanctions, and think tanks estimate it will cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next 10 to 20 years to rebuild the dilapidated country. Fortune magazine puts the amount at US$2 trillion over the next decade.
Supposing North Korea completely scraps all of its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, South Korea may not only have to provide compensation but also offer humanitarian aid and money to rebuild the North's moribund economy. If the North enters a path of reforms and market-opening, there would be no reason for South Korea to withhold such aid, but Trump seemed to be suggesting that South Korea and China pick up the entire tab.
But it is the U.S. and North Korea that are engaged in denuclearization talks. South Korea is merely eavesdropping on the sidelines. "And, look, we're very far away," Trump said. "We are very far away. Those places are very close. It's their neighborhood. We're thousands -- we're 6,000 miles away." Yet the U.S. is a stakeholder in the nuclear threat and never tires of pointing out that it is an "existential" one to America. Then why does physical proximity suddenly matter when it comes to paying up? Not many South Korean will be happy if the U.S. does all the negotiating and the South ends up covering the astronomical cost.
Moreover, there is no guarantee that the North will completely scrap its nuclear weapons after the summit with Trump. There will be a lot of announcements and handshakes, but it will be no easy task to locate all of the North's fissile materials in a country that has an estimated 10,000 underground tunnels. Even if North Korea has one nuclear bomb tucked away, the result would be no different than 100 nuclear weapons from South Korea's standpoint.
Seoul cannot allow itself to be pushed into picking up the massive tab in the absence of complete verification that the North has scrapped all of its nuclear weapons. And the South will be able to support the North only if it also scraps all of its chemical and biological weapons. Yet even if all of these conditions are met, support for North Korea must be set at a scale South Korea can handle. The South's economy is no longer growing in the double digits, and it is saddled with an aging population and one of the lowest birthrates in the world. South Korean voters will simply not tolerate massive aid for North Korea.
Trump said, "So I've already told South Korea, I said, 'You know, you're going to have to get ready.'" Has he? If so, the government must reveal what kinds of promises it made. Already it looks like the government is looking for ways to resume aid to North Korea without properly explaining things to the public, and is ready to resume it immediately once the U.S. gives the green light. That is no way to handle such a monumental task. The government has some explaining to do.
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