Thursday, December 02, 2010

Nuclear Issues: Wary Coexistence in a Nuclear Neighbourhood

By Ernest Corea
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON DC (IDN) - Anxiety that tensions in and around the Yellow Sea could develop in fairly short order into another Korean War has quietly receded, even temporarily, as public interest has moved towards the explosion of cable traffic (between the State Department and American embassies) across the pages of the world's newspapers.

The dangers inherent make the Korean situation remain vexing, although Shanghai-based Professor Ni Lexiong has come up with the optimistic assurance: "We don't want a conflict and neither does the U.S. Like parents of fighting children, we will drag them apart to keep things under control. Who fired first is meaningless."

The world, meanwhile, continues to pore over the Wikileaks disclosures, some of which contain Chinese, South Korean, and American speculation about future events and trends in the Korean peninsula. Much of the conjecture has already been turned on its head by real-life events.


Wikileaks, the whistle blowing organization headed by an Australian, Julian Assange, has released only 281 of the 251,257 cables (26,276,536 words) leaked to it. The first crop of documents was published in the New York Times, the Guardian (UK), Der Spiegel (Germany) Le Monde (France), and El Pais (Spain). Selected portions have since been re-published in numerous print media and broadcast on television and radio across the globe.

Some of the diplomatic messages covered important matters of state. Example: the disquiet felt by Arab leaders over the progress of Iran's nuclearisation program and the suggestion by one of them that the U.S. should destroy the program. Others dealt with a little more than gossip. Example: President Muammar Gaddafi's minder when he travels is an Ukrainian nurse described as a "voluptuous blonde."

The content of these messages has provoked sniggers, caused concern, and attracted extraordinary public attention.


Meanwhile, there is a whole agenda of critically important issues whose neglect can actually harm world peace and security.

To name just a few, lest we forget:

-- Ratification by the U.S. Senate of the new START agreement is threatened by exceptionalism, i.e. the instant response of some Republicans to take exception to anything proposed by President Barack Obama. Rejection of the START agreement by the present session of Congress is likely to be repeated in the next session which will see an increase of conservative Senators take their seats. The non-proliferation regime as well as Russia-U.S. bilateral relations could be affected.

-- Climate change and other aspects of environmental management are at risk when sceptics either insist that carefully collated and assessed data is "fake, fake, fake" or claim that "the market will manage this." While the world at large is affected by all changes in the fragile habitat that is home to the entire human family, the poor are often the worst hit. They lack the resources and, in some cases, the knowledge, to prevent or mitigate the effects of environmental damage.

-- Potentially the most dangerous of all in the short term, with obvious implications for the longer term, could be the state of tension that pervades the Kim Dynasty's nuclear neighbourhood.


The fraught nature of relations between North and South was confirmed as clearly a global issue on June 25, 1950 when the UN Commission on Korea, and the U.S. delegation to the UN, informed the UN Secretary General that North Korea had invaded the South. More details were provided in a communication from South Korean authorities.

A war followed, involving North and South, as well as U.S. forces nominally under UN command, and Chinese troops. The U.S. thus found itself in the awkward situation of engaging in hostilities with a phantom force because throughout this period the U.S. insisted -- in relation to China's UN membership -- that Taiwan was China and China was not.

The Korean War resulted in several back-and-forth changes of battlefield fortunes. Eventually, after great bloodshed, and many deaths, hostilities were officially halted under an armistice agreement signed on July 27, 1953 by representatives of the UN, China, and North Korea.

Later that year the UN adopted a resolution which "reaffirmed UN objectives of the achievement by peaceful means of a unified, independent and democratic Korea under a representative form of government and the full restoration of peace in the area."

These objectives remain unchanged but unfulfilled (like, for example, the withdrawal of Israel from occupied territories).


Since the armistice, each of the Koreas has taken separate approaches to political and economic management. The North chose an authoritarian political path and that approach spilled over into economic management as well. Despite recent attempts to provide "space" for the development of farmers' markets, the economy has been relentlessly statist.

North Korea was affected by a diminution of economic support from China and the Soviet as a result of their domestic developments. It has also suffered from floods that seriously impaired the rural economy and devastates agriculture. Mass famine was barely averted through plentiful food aid.

International agencies find it difficult to measure the North's progress and assess its achievements or failures in relation to the needs of its people and the performance of other countries. It is believed, however, that the North carries a large external debt.

North Korea has invested heavily in military development -- personnel, conventional materiel, missiles development, and a nuclear program. They recently showed off a spanking new uranium enrichment operation to a visiting U.S. scientist. While they have undoubtedly satisfied their own desire to be militarily feared, they have also broken some of their commitments relating to non-proliferation.

The South, while grappling with the major issue of corruption, experienced grassroots demands for a departure from military rule -- even when soldiers who won elective office threw off their uniforms and ruled in business suits. Consequently, the country steadily moved towards a democratic form of government, and a mixed economy with an emphasis on the private sector. The South Korean economy is currently No. 15 in the world, and it is reputed to have low external debt and high reserves.

The country is also recognized for its achievement in nurturing human development, as measured by the international Human Development Index.

Not surprisingly, its achievements have been recognized through membership in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) and the policy-setting Group of 20 (G-20). In addition, a South Korean is currently the UN Secretary General.


Is it likely or even possible that these two disparate elements can co-exist peacefully, let alone re-unite as attempted through the "sunshine policy" of some past presidents from the South and required by the UN resolution mentioned above?

The North has been suspected of attempting to export insurgency to foreign countries. It has been known to seek the assassination of political figures in the South. For years at a time, however, the two Koreas have managed to co-exist, although minor skirmishes, espionage, sabotage, defections, and even counter-defections, have not been unknown. It has been a wary coexistence but coexistence nevertheless.

(On one celebrated occasion, when a North Korean defector attempted to re-defect, he was followed by South Korean agents to a third country where he was picked up when he was about to board a flight home. Asked by a news agency representative what the fate of the man would be, one of the arresting agents replied: "He will be given a fair trial, and executed.")


The foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea and the U.S. Secretary of State are expected to meet shortly to devise a common policy towards dealing with North Korean aggression as manifested in the sinking of a South Korean ship, with 46 deaths as a result; and the more recent attack on Yeonpeng island which killed or injured soldiers and civilians.

That is only a start towards evolving a long-term strategy for ensuring that both Koreas survive and thrive, that they respect each other, that their peoples are not endangered by mutually hostile policies, and that their relationship does not imperil regional stability or create international insecurity.

They would do well to take seriously a recent comment by President Jimmy Carter. He wrote in the Washington Post: "No one can completely understand the motivation of the North Koreans but it is entirely possible that their recent revelation of their nuclear enrichment centrifuges and shelling of a South Korean island are designed to remind the world that they deserve respect in negotiations that will shape their future."

President Lee Myung-bak came into office in Seoul promising South Koreans he would follow a tough policy against transgressions from the North. Recent North Korean actions have caused an outpouring of support for that approach. It is time for all parties to "calm down."

This is a message that China, too, must take to heart for unless China is invited and persuaded to join in crafting a program of equivalence and peaceful coexistence for the two Koreas, such a program will not be implemented. No other country can hold Pyongyang's feet to the fire.

Providing the necessary leadership to turn these considerations into reality is as great a challenge for American diplomacy as grappling with Wikileaks-induced embarrassment. (IDN-InDepthNews/24.11.2010)

The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is on the IDN editorial board and President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.

i On Global Trends will break for Christmas, Dec 11, 2010 and return Jan 4, 2011