Trudy Rubin: Time to try a new approach on North Korea

04/18/2013 5:42 PM

04/18/2013 5:42 PM

What to do about Kim Jong Un, the world’s greatest showman, who is noisily threatening a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula and preparing to test a missile that could reach Guam?

Politicians and pundits are furiously debating the answer, but I’ve heard no ideas likely to persuade North Korea’s 20-something leader to behave better.

Or at least I hadn’t until last week, when a prominent South Korean legislator suggested a response that would be bitterly opposed by Washington (and Beijing and Pyongyang).

I could hear the gasps as Chung Mong-joon, a former leader of South Korea’s governing party, told the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., that South Korea should build its own bomb.

“Diplomacy has failed. Persuasion has failed. Carrots … have all failed,” Chung said. He’s correct. Time after time, U.S. and international overtures to Pyongyang (including President Obama’s) have been met with bluster, threats and deception. When accords were signed that could have led to the normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations in return for denuclearization, the terms and the spirit were violated as North Korea continued its pursuit of weapons.

Not only did Pyongyang develop a secret program to enrich uranium, but it became a notorious proliferator, offering nuclear know-how and materiel to Pakistan, Syria and Iran.

South Korea, too, was bamboozled. Over the past decade, “South Korea transferred nearly $10 billion worth of cash, goods and aid to North Korea,” Chung noted, in its effort to encourage reconciliation. Even as North Korea took the gifts, it kept developing nukes and long-range missiles.

Chung believes that North Korea never had any intention of ending its nuclear program. Given what happened to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi – who halted their programs – Kim is even less likely to end it now.

Instead, the Hermit Kingdom threatens to engulf Seoul in a “sea of flames.”

Even those who dismiss Kim’s rhetoric fear that his recklessness might trigger an unintended disaster.

Chung’s conclusion: “The only thing that kept the Cold War cold was the mutual deterrence afforded by nuclear weapons.” He wants South Korea to “match North Korea’s nuclear progress step by step, while committing to stop if North Korea stops.”

Of course, the Obama administration opposes a South Korean bomb (as have previous administrations), and insists the U.S. nuclear umbrella is sufficient.

If South Korea begins a weapons program, this could trigger an East Asian nuclear-arms race, with Japan (or even Taiwan) following suit.

But this very real prospect could provide the administration with a strategic club.

Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to persuade China to curb its North Korean ally, an approach that has never worked. The Chinese worry that any punitive cutoff of aid to North Korea might trigger its collapse, leading to a unified Korea under Seoul with U.S. troops on their border.

Doug Paal, who heads the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Kerry should stress that the current situation “is not sustainable,” and make the point that “the United States has no desire to put troops in the north of Korea” if the Pyongyang regime collapses. Kerry should also tell China its tolerance of Kim’s antics threatens to unleash a wave of nuclear proliferation in East Asia.

“Chung is trying to add leverage to our side,” said Paal. “It won’t change the thinking in North Korea, but it might cause China to reconsider.” Which is just what everyone needs.

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