Insights and Analysis

The Denuclearization Dilemma

October 3, 2007

By Scott Snyder

The following opinion article was originally printed in the Korea Herald:

An inter-Korean summit meeting by its nature provides Korean leaders with a powerful opportunity to shape the future of the peninsula and to create new opportunities for peace and co-prosperity. It is a step toward solving “the question of the country’s reunification independently by the concerted efforts of the Korean nation responsible for it,” as stated in the June 2000 North-South Declaration. But how far can the two leaders go without addressing the number one regional concern of all of Korea’s neighbors”the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula?

ROK President Roh Moo-hyun stated last week that he would not raise the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons when he meets Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, but the fact that the nuclear issue remains unresolved creates an unavoidable burden and expectation that Roh will address the issue. According to recent polls, two-thirds of South Koreans expect the nuclear issue to be discussed at the summit.

North Korea has also made it clear that it does not wish to speak with South Korea about nuclear issue, preferring instead to address that issue with the United States. The issue is at the top of the agenda of six-party talks, so some might argue that there is no need for Korean leaders to discuss it.

But to what extent does a failure to raise the nuclear issue imply South Korean recognition of a nuclear North Korea? At an inter-Korean ministerial meeting only three months prior to North Korea’s nuclear test, the North Korean side made the provocative assertion that the South could be protected under the North Korea’s nuclear umbrella. The asking price for such “protection” would no doubt be an expensive political, economic, and even individual price for South Koreans to pay.

The North has emphasized that peace, co-prosperity, and national reunification be pursued in the spirit of “by our nation itself.” But can the Korean quest for unification be successful if the nuclear issue is not addressed to the satisfaction of Korea’s neighbors? And can an inter-Korean summit really address issues in isolation from the region of which it is a part?

It is clear that North Korea’s leaders would like to pretend that the Korean peninsula exists in splendid isolation from the influences of its neighbors, or perhaps that all Korea’s neighbors would automatically defer to Korean-led reunification efforts. This is a natural dream since Korean desires have been thwarted for over a century by great power efforts to dominate and divide the peninsula based on their own needs and objectives.

Given Korea’s tragic history, it must be tempting to argue for a unified, nuclear-armed Korea precisely because it is the one scenario that all the major powers oppose. It would be an obvious misstep at this stage for Kim Jong Il to pit Korean unification impulses against the common region-wide desire for a non-nuclear Korean peninsula.

It is impossible at this stage to imagine that an inter-Korean summit will accomplish much without also recognizing the need for denuclearization. In fact, the September 19, 2005, Joint Statement of principles creates a new context for regional interaction over the North Korean nuclear issue that can only be achieved in tandem with the goals of the inter-Korean summit. The Joint Statement includes region-wide support for North Korea’s economic development, the establishment of peace on the Korean peninsula, and normalization of North Korea’s relations with the United States, and Japan, respectively, but only in the context of denuclearization. The best chance for the inter-Korean summit to be successful will be through efforts that reinforce–rather than oppose or ignore–the objective of denuclearization.

The postponement of the inter-Korean summit is propitious because Roh Moo-hyun’s visit to Pyongyang now follows on the heels of the latest round of six party talks in Beijing. If it is possible to set in motion the next steps necessary to implement the second phase of the February 13th agreement involving the disablement of North Korea’s nuclear facilities in return for U.S. political concessions and the provision of 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, this will create a positive atmosphere for the summit.

The summit would in turn reinforce the six party process if Kim Jong Il is willing to publicly announce his commitment to denuclearization as part of an inter-Korean joint declaration. Such a commitment”in line with his father’s reported dying wish for a non-nuclear Korea”would be particularly valuable in light of North Korea’s unwillingness thus far to affirm to its own people the commitments North Korea has made as part of the six party talks. Clear evidence that Kim Jong Il has made a “strategic decision” would also jump-start American steps toward diplomatic normalization, as President Bush reaffirmed in his meeting with Roh Moo-hyun last month in Sydney.

Although Kim’s verbal commitment would still need to be backed by action, it would also constitute a tangible step forward, provide real momentum to the six party process, promote both North Korea’s denuclearization and its political and economic integration with the outside world, and open the way for expanded economic assistance to promote North Korea’s development. Such a commitment would also lay the foundation for peaceful coexistence on the Korean peninsula and set in motion military tension-reduction measures that would turn the DMZ into a normal border.

Scott Snyder is a Senior Associate with The Asia Foundation and can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Korea
Related topics: North Korea


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