SEOUL - The sense of confrontation on the Korean Peninsula is deepening
precipitously with North Korea expelling inspectors from the International
Atomic Energy Agency, vowing to resume fabricating nuclear weapons and
withdrawing from six-party talks on its nuclear program.
In apparent response, South Korea is raising the ante by deciding to join the
Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a key element of the George W Bush
administration's drive to keep America's enemies from dealing in weapons of
A Foreign Ministry source said South Korea would join the PSI despite qualms
about the fallout. Yonhap, the South Korean news
agency, quoted a diplomatic source as saying the timing depended on "rapidly
escalating regional tensions". The government, said the source, is "seeking
cooperation from China and Russia in order to minimize the impact".
The fear is South Korea's membership in what North Korea will see as another
milestone on the road to war will drive China and Russia, the North's Korean
War allies, closer to the North. China and Russia both opposed demands for a
strong United Nations (UN) resolution as punishment for the North's test of a
long-range missile on April 5.
There is no doubt that the PSI ranks as one of the pet projects of which Bush
was most proud when he revealed it nearly six years ago. The project gives the
PSI's 15 "core" participants - supported by about 90 countries with uncertain
"associate" and "observer" roles - the right to go far beyond conventional
diplomacy to combat proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including
components, the missiles that fire them, and the means for producing them.
"While noting that traditional non-proliferation measures such as diplomacy ...
the strategy placed increasing emphasis on countering proliferation once it has
occurred," said a 2006 report by the Congressional Research Service. The
purpose was to "enhance the capabilities of our military, intelligence,
technical and law-enforcement communities in fighting the movement of weapons
of mass destruction ... to hostile states and terrorist organizations."
The PSI as a tool for use against North Korea could come in handy as North
Korea turns back the clock on negotiations begun in 2007 to give up its nuclear
program. North Korea earlier this year declared "null and void" agreements
reached in February and October 2007 for shutting down its five-megawatt
reactor at its nuclear complex at Yongbyon and blew up a cooling tower.
The real impact of the PSI, however, remains unclear. "It took five years for
the Republic of Korea to join PSI," said Richard Lawless, a former US deputy
under secretary of defense who played a major role in negotiating US defense
agreements here in recent years. "It is high time that it did so."
Lawless, who had a long background as a US Central Intelligence Agency
operative before joining the Department of Defense, downplayed the significance
of the PSI as a plot against North Korea. "PSI is a global initiative," he said
"It's not targeted against North Korea. It's targeted against several
Lawless left no doubt, however, of the implications and possible impact of the
PSI on the export of North Korean missiles and fissile materiel, notably to
clients in the Middle East such as Iran. "If North Korea were a member of the
greater family of nations, it should ask to join PSI, not throw rocks at it,"
said Lawless, who is currently visiting Seoul. However, he added, since North
Korea would "sell anything" possibly "anywhere in the world", it ranks "as a
candidate for strong attention" as a proliferator.
Some analysts warn, however, that interdiction of North Korean vessels would
inevitably provoke a flare-up with unforeseeable consequences. "PSI will
backfire," said Kim Sung-hak, political scientist at Hanyang University. "It
will have the direct opposite result. It will give Pyongyang the reason to be
more militant and if possible to use arms against South Korea."
The North Korean response to the UN Security Council's condemnation of the
North's test on April 5 of a long-range Taepodong-2 capable of carrying a
warhead as far as Alaska or Hawaii has gone well beyond the typical rhetoric
Although the statement was far weaker than the resolution opposed by China and
Russia, North Korea clearly saw powers great and small as ganging up against
it. Declaring the need for North Korea "to bolster its nuclear deterrent", the
North's Foreign Ministry ruled out any chance of resuming six-party talks, last
held in December.
Reliance on the PSI appears in turn one response to the failure of UN sanctions
adopted after North Korea tested an earlier version of the Taepodong-2 on July
5, 2006, and detonated a nuclear device underground three months later, on
October 9. China and Russia have both increased exports to North Korea while
other nations observed the sanctions.
South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who took office in
February, has repeatedly called for dialogue but has long since halted all aid
to North Korea in an attempt to get the North to agree to "verification" of
whatever it claimed to have done to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
South Korea's advance from observer to member status of the PSI seems sure to
complete a reversal of the "Sunshine" policy of reconciliation initiated by Kim
Dae-jung after he was inaugurated president in February 1998 and carried on by
his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, who served from February 2003 to February 2008.
While "Sunshine" has faded, North Korea has plunged into its own leadership
crisis. One theory here is that North Korea's precipitous action this week is
evidence of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il's worries about his failing health - and
succession to power after he passes from the scene. "Internally they have a big
problem now," said a former UN official in Seoul.
Kim's failing health was on public display last week when he appeared on North
Korean state TV at a meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly. He had clearly
lost considerable weight since reportedly suffering a stroke in August of last
year, and he looked haggard, walked with a slight limp, and had difficulty
raising his left hand.
Kim is assumed to be grooming one of his three sons to succeed him, but he is
counting now on his brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek. In one of his first
gestures after the assembly elected him unanimously to a third five-year term
as chairman of the National Defense Commission, the center of power in North
Korea, he made Jang a commission member.
The defense commission grew from eight to 13 members with the addition of two
others rewarded for their role in the missile launch. "Overall", a spokesman
for South Korea's Unification Ministry told reporters, "the power of the
defense commission was strengthened".
Worsening North-South relations, however, far predate the latest test of a
South Korea has not provided aid for North Korea since 2007, the last year of
the presidency of Roh Moo-hyun, who was committed to carrying on the policy of
reconciliation with the North initiated by his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, in
1998. South Korea in 2007 shipped 400,000 tons of rice and 350,000 tons of
fertilizer to the North.
North Korea has also raised questions about the future of the Kaesong
Industrial complex, which is located beside the ancient capital of Kaesong,
just above the line with North Korea near the truce village of Panmunjom.
North Korea earlier this year sharply reduced access by South Korean managers
and technicians to the zone where about 40,000 North Korean workers work in 100
Korean factories turning out light industrial products. The South's Unification
Ministry says work at the zone has returned to normal, but now South Korea is
angered by the arrest on March 30 of a South Korean worker for Hyundai Asan,
the South Korean firm with overall responsibility for the zone.
South Korea is demanding the right to see the worker, accused by the North of
attempting to subvert a North Korean and spread anti-North Korean propaganda.
The worker in question is believed to be a North Korean waitress at a snack bar
in the zone frequented after hours by South Korean managers and technicians.
"There may be some problem if North Korea makes our workers there hostage,"
says Cho Gab-je, a noted conservative editor and writer here.
Cho doubts if South Korean companies "will pull out voluntarily, but maybe they
want to be forced out by North Korea so they can get compensation", promised by
the South Korean government. "The best thing that can happen," he said, "is
they shut down the Kaesong complex".
Controversy also surrounds tours to Mount Kumkang, the complex of granitic
peaks above the eastern end of the line between the two Koreas. South Korea
suspended them after an elderly South Korean woman was shot and killed by a
North Korean soldier last year as she strayed outside the tourist area. No one
is talking about resuming them any time soon.
One real concern here is that North Korea will initiate armed conflict,
possibly in the West or Yellow Sea, the scene of bloody shootouts in June 1999
and June 2002. "North Korea can [also] make ... trouble along the NLL," said
Cho, referring to the Northern Limit Line established by the UN Command in the
West Sea after the Korean War below which North Korean ships are banned.
At the same time, as Cho notes, South Korea may lift the permission it has
given North Korean vessels to sail between the southern tip of mainland South
Korea and the island of Jeju. "We can make another confrontation to stop North
Korean vessels," he said. "We opened the sea lane to them, but we can stop them
because they did not cooperate with our maritime police."
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.