Last week (10.14) Asia Times (HK) published following remarkable article about the recently reached "agreement/compromise" between the U.S. and N.K. and some important questions related to the issue of a "Nuclear-free Korean Peninsula":
Pyongyang's call for 'fair's fair' ignored
North Korea officially no longer sponsors terrorism, according to the United States government. Pyongyang is elated, and the US is in self-help psychology sessions, trying to believe it was the best possible deal to get the North to fully disarm its nuclear weapons program.
There is in this development an important detail that deserves attention. During the three days of negotiations in North Korea's capital between the chief US nuclear envoy, Christopher Hill, and Pyongyang's masters of high-stakes brinkmanship, Washington tried to include a couple of additional sites for nuclear inspection besides Yongbyon, where the North on Tuesday insisted it would allow UN monitors to assure that the plant that produced plutonium for its test bomb remained disabled.
The US demand over inspection of additional sites was not part of the previous agreement and Pyongyang made a counter-proposal. It wanted to have a full-scale nuclear inspection for the entire Korean Peninsula, which, of course, includes South Korea. That was a hard-hitting, in-your-face punch line by North Korea.
South Korea officially says it is a "nuclear-free" state. On September 18, 2004, then South Korean unification minister Chung Dong-young said, "The [South Korean] government so far has not had any nuclear programs for military purposes. It has not pursued one either. This policy won't change." Recently, Hill also said South Korea regularly received all the required inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency and abided by verification agreements and safety measures.
But North Korea has long accused that the US military bases in the South possessed nuclear weapons and has called for nuclear verification on the US military facilities in South Korea. The official US policy stance in the region is also to create a "nuclear-free Korean Peninsula" that covers both Koreas. Then, why not take Pyongyang's proposal and come closer to realizing a "nuclear-free Korea"?
The problem is that it is widely believed in South Korea that the US military bases have nuclear weapons. South Korea's left-leaning media outlets and civic groups have openly challenged the government on this matter in their periodical demand for the withdrawal of US troops from the country.
Pyongyang going nuclear in 2006 poses a threat to neighboring countries and the international community, but the discourse surrounding its program neglects to include some key details because they are inconvenient.
North Korea embarked on the path of developing nuclear weapons in the face of a perceived threat from the United States. That is, Pyongyang's nuclear ambition is defensive in nature. This may be a hard sell to many, but this is the message delivered by Selig Harrison, a former Washington Post reporter and expert on the Korean Peninsula's security affairs.
Harrison in his book Korean Endgame wrote, "North Korea's perception of its security environment is not irrational in the context of its embattled national history since 1945." He added that Pyongyang's desire to develop nuclear weapons was "a direct response to nuclear saber-rattling [by the US] during the Korean War [in the early 1950s] and the subsequent deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons in the South for more than three decades."
Harrison, quoting declassified documents from the Korean War, said in "Operation Hudson Harbor", B-29 bombers dropped dummy atomic bombs on Pyongyang during "simulated practice runs" in late 1951. In the subsequent several pages, Harrison elaborates on this observation.
Professor Bruce Cumings, an authority on Korean affairs, nods to this view and said in his book, North Korea: Another Country, that the North's drive for nuclear capability is "understandable".
After the Korean War, the US deployed nuclear weapons to South Korea and, strangely, did not shy away from acknowledging it. That departed from the usual practice of the Pentagon that maintained a "neither confirm nor deny" policy, refusing to say where US nuclear weapons were deployed. South Korea was an exception. In 1975, US secretary of defense James Schlesinger openly confirmed their presence in South Korea, in an apparently calculated move to intimidate North Korea and dissuade it from attacking the South.
The period when nuclear weapons were present in South Korea was from 1958 to 1991. President George H W Bush removed tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea during his term in office between 1989-1993.
However, "Despite the removal of tactical nuclear weapons from the South, the United States has not ruled out their reintroduction," Harrison said, quoting the document at that time. That raises the possibility that nuclear weapons might have been redeployed to South Korea after 1991.
As mentioned earlier, South Korea and the US say no. Pyongyang doesn't trust them and its demand for simultaneous nuclear inspection for both Koreas has been a consistent one since 1994, when the first nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula erupted.
In June 2005, North Korea's Workers' Party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, for example, said, "If denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula to be realized, America must withdraw the nuclear weapons it deployed in South Korea. The withdrawal of the nuclear weapons must be verified."
The article also said, "In the past, the US had deployed a number of nuclear weapons and didn't report it to anyone," adding a shocking claim that "even the South Korean government was kept in the dark".
"Even after the US announced during the father Bush administration that it no longer had nuclear weapons in South Korea, there were still nuclear weapons in South Korea. As long as South Korea has nuclear weapons, no matter how many times the US said it would not attack us with nuclear bombs, it ultimately comes as a lip service," the newspaper's commentary said, emphasizing, "Without verification of nuclear weapons [in South Korea], the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons argument is meaningless."
Later, North Korea's deputy United Nations ambassador, Han Seung-ryul, in a July 4 speech delivered at the British think-tank Chatham House in 2007, said, "The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is only possible through simultaneous denuclearization steps in North Korea and the US military bases in South Korea." Han's statement was seen as an expression of intent that North Korea will definitely take issue with the American forces stationed in South Korea in its ultimate denuclearization steps.
Against such a background, Choi Han-wook, a researcher with the left-leaning Korea Civil Rights Institute, argued, "Essentially, the problem is not North Korean nuclear weapons, but American nuclear weapons ... North Korea embarked on the path of nuclear development because of its perceived threat from the US."
Choi continued, "Many people think the nuclear crisis in the Korean Peninsula is attributable to North Korea. Namely, the crisis happened because North Korea developed nuclear weapons. These people, therefore, see North Korea's nuclear development as equal to the nuclear crisis in the Korean Peninsula. Even some experts think the history of the North Korean nuclear crisis as something that happened since the 1990s. That's putting the horse before the cart."
Both Seoul and Washington have brushed aside North Korea's proposal for simultaneous inspection in both the Koreas as a tactic to raise its stake in the nuclear negotiations. This analysis is rudimentary. What they fail to see or acknowledge is that it's not just a negotiation tactic, but a fundamental stance by North Korea.
Therefore, in the ultimate deal-making in which North Korea is poised to make the final and complete renouncement of its nuclear programs (when the world pays the right price and the US offers a legally binding security guarantee), it is very likely that it will demand denuclearization in South Korea as well. And that points to the need for South Korea and the US to make a clear statement that can be presented to North Korea in trustworthy fashion.
John Tillery, the American commander of all forces in South Korea for three years from 1996, said US forces in South Korea didn't have nuclear arms and he didn't understand why North Korea kept making that claim. "It is the consistent policy of the United States and the government of the Republic of Korea to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. I don't understand why North Korea raises the [issue of] nuclear inspection on the American military bases in South Korea."
A well-placed source told this writer that South Korea indeed has nuclear weapons in the US military base nearby Seoul. "They bring the nuclear arsenals in and out of the country on a regular basis," he said, adding, "By doing so, South Korea technically doesn't have nuclear weapons."
True or not, his statement confirms what many people have long privately believed. But it importantly points out that sooner or later, this issue, if left unattended, will be a drag on the Korean nuclear talks.