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South, North Nuclear Politics Takes Center Stage
How a US report on the North's nuclear policy surprised Seoul
Lee Byong-chul (merrycow)     Print Article 
Published 2008-12-12 18:07 (KST)   
Edited by Rich Bowden  <Editor's Note>
It shouldn't come as a surprise that a United States defense report that categorizes North Korea as one of the nuclear powers of the Asian continent -- an area which also includes China, India, Pakistan and Russia -- sent shock waves through the conservative South Korean government.

The 2008 Joint Operating Environment (JOE) report, which focused on future strategies regarding the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, has left a gaping hole in South Korean policy so strongly backed for several decades by successive US administrations. With no clear-cut evidence showing North Korea to be nuclear-armed despite Pyongyang's first nuclear test in October, 2006, the findings of the annual report by the US Joint Operations Command could be considered to be in error.

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Yet US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates's assertions in his article published in the 2009 January/February edition of Foreign Affairs demonstrates the JOE review was not mistakenly written. In the respected and influential magazine, Gates, who is to continue his role as defense secretary in the incoming Obama administration, claimed that "North Korea has built several bombs."

Certain to become central to the security agenda of the ROK-US alliance, these provided important insights into the nature of the North Korean nuclear capabilities. However the findings not only caught policymakers by surprise but also awoke some conservative South Koreans' dormant aspirations toward nuclear armament. South Korea has shown it cannot be neutral in the matter of nuclear proliferation and the military report did not hide the potential concern that South Korea, together with Japan and Taiwan, was considered to "have the capacity to become nuclear powers quickly."

Questions remain whether Washington took Pyongyang's possession of nuclear weapons for granted before making a consultative compromise decision on the need to narrow the gap of intelligence and information with Seoul. Indeed, the increasing sophistication of denial and deception efforts on the part of proliferating states such as North Korea and Pakistan has made it more difficult for America to monitor and analyze the increasing availability of dual-use technologies.

In short, the existing export control regimes are limited in their goal of preventing the spread of the weapon-related technologies, particularly those disguised as civilian applications. Literally, "the hill is getting steeper every year" and the US may be attempting to expose its friends and foes to all possible scenarios.

When the United States addresses the North Korean nuclear affair, in particular while it is still unclear if North Korea has achieved its nuclear ambitions, it will be necessary to be more precise and prudent than in the past. The US administration must insist on responsibility and accountability in its ranks to ensure the world's only super power not only leads the world wisely but also with an eye to transforming enormous challenges into opportunities.

There has been urgency shown with regard to the North's potential nuclear capabilities in the past. On Oct. 16, 2002, the Bush administration disclosed that North Korea had revealed to then US assistant secretary of state James Kelly in Pyongyang that it was conducting a nuclear weapons program based on uranium enrichment.

Furthermore, North Korean vice foreign minister Kang Sok-ju at the time proudly told Kelly that North Korea also possessed "more powerful" weapons. The Central Intelligence Agency issued a statement in December, 2002 that the communist country had the capability to make two or more atomic bombs annually after 2004. North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in January, 2003 as the US stopped supplying heavy oil to North Korea in December, 2002.

In relation to the incoming US administration, South Koreans are mindful of what president-elect Barack Obama asserted in his interview with CBS news anchor Katie Couric in August when he said, "North Korea has developed eight nuclear weapons." The suspicion remains that the number of North Korean nuclear weapons in Mr. Obama's mind was more than both Seoul and Washington has previously estimated. This remains the case although North Korea has shown itself to be one of the world's 'dangerous' states that have been actively engaged in the development of WMD and ballistic missile delivery systems, mainly with the help of the now defunct Soviet Union.

Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, much of nuclear weapons-related technologies and expertise were transferred from Russia to other countries and groups. It was revealed that many North Korean nuclear scientists had studied in the then Soviet Union and Pakistan. Hwang Jang-yop, a North Korean Party's secretary who defected to the South in 1997, disclosed that North Korea and Pakistan signed an agreement in 1996 to trade North Korean long-range missile technology in return for Pakistani uranium.

Hwang has since given real clues about North Korea's nuclear capabilities, information which was kept relatively low-key under previous liberal governments. In fact a number of conservative pundits claim that former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun both had protected the Pyongyang regime to protect turbulent inter-Korean relations. They both appeared to disregard the North Korean leader's die-hard nuclear ambitions.

In current President Lee Myung-bak's view, his predecessors closed their eyes to the imminent threats toward the South Korean people. The threats from the North have been consistently defined differently in right and left wing administrations.

In the meantime, South Korean officials appear to deny the ominous possibility that North Korea has already developed nuclear weapons program based on indigenous capabilities. Immediately after the first media reports on the JOC study were released, the South Korean Foreign Ministry tried to neutralize the politically sensitive issue by pointing out the view expressed on North Korea was not the US's official stance. The ministry noted that the United States would take measures to correct the view. However despite these efforts, the foreign ministry's comments have failed to decode the US's hidden intentions with the release of the report.

To date, there has been no significant criticism from the South Korean government of the prospect that North Korea will use its nuclear weapons against the South. An apparent evolution of the US administration's mindset can be heard over time though inevitably the nuclear issue will need to be spearheaded by America. The US can seek to develop capabilities and plans to counter the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the transfer of related technologies in accordance with its own information and data, but the prospects for ultimate success must continue to be pessimistic unless the active support of like-minded states is made.

South Korea therefore cannot afford to be diffident over the North's nuclear ambitions and both Seoul and Washington will need to send a clear message to Pyongyang if Kim Jong-il gives the green light to any future nuclear tests.
©2008 OhmyNews

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