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Ex-unification minister casts doubts on China's role in North Korean nuclear issue

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Kyungnam University President Park Jae Kyu speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at his office in Seoul, Thursday. Korea Times photo by Kang Seung-woo
Kyungnam University President Park Jae Kyu speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at his office in Seoul, Thursday. Korea Times photo by Kang Seung-woo

'US extended deterrence is the most realistic means against Pyongyang's provocations'

By Kang Seung-woo

Amid escalating nuclear and missile threats from North Korea, China's role has come to the fore given Beijing is regarded as the only country that can exert influence on Pyongyang thanks to its billing as the reclusive state's sole economic pipeline and diplomatic guardian.

Its accentuated role was evidenced by U.S. President Joe Biden's call on his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during their first face-to-face meeting in Indonesia, last month, to take proper steps to de-escalate military tensions exacerbated by the Kim Jong-un regime.

However, Kyungnam University President Park Jae Kyu, a former South Korean unification minister, questioned if China would live up to those expectations by playing a constructive role in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, saying that there is little that Beijing can do and it has little interest in supporting the United States in dealing with North Korea.

"A distinction must be made between whether China is in such a position to apply pressure and whether it can actually do something even if it is in such a position," Park said in an interview with The Korea Times, Thursday.

"Looking at the results of the U.S.-China and ROK-China summits on the occasion of the recent G20 meeting, China does not seem to be in a position to put pressure on North Korea."

ROK refers to the Republic of Korea, South Korea's official name.

"On the other hand, we are of the perspective that China can play a constructive role because China has political and economic influence over North Korea," he added.

Last month, President Yoon Suk-yeol also held his first summit with Xi, but the Chinese leader hoped that South Korea will do its part to improve inter-Korean relations actively in response to the South Korean leader's call for China's active and constructive role in dealing with North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.

"As for China, while urging that the Korean Peninsula issue should be resolved through dialogue between the parties, and that China supports dialogue efforts, Xi emphasized that China's role would be limited otherwise," Park said.

The president also said China's position seems connected to the currently intensifying U.S.-China rivalry.

"As the rivalry intensifies, China will sense the need to strengthen its solidarity with socialist North Korea, and North Korea is trying to strengthen its own nuclear capabilities as much as possible to fill the diplomatic vacuum," he said.

This year alone, North Korea has fired ballistic missiles over 30 times, including eight intercontinental ballistic missile launches, in violation of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions that ban the country from using ballistic missile technology. However, the UNSC has repeatedly failed to take a punitive action against North Korea's missile provocations due to opposition from China and Russia.

Plus, the self-proclaimed nuclear state has been fully preparing for a seventh nuclear test, which would be its first since 2017.

"China is implicitly restraining North Korea's actions ― such as a seventh nuclear test ― with ripple effects; but we can also see that China is avoiding discussions at the level of the U.N. Security Council and in effect condoning North Korea's launch of numerous and various ballistic missiles aimed at South Korea, the U.S. and Japan," Park said.

With efforts toward the North Korean nuclear menace making little progress, accompanied by doubts on U.S. extended deterrence, South Korea is facing mounting calls to acquire nuclear weapons or reintroduce U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula.

According to a recent poll by the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, more than half of South Koreans, or 55.5 percent, supported the development of a domestic nuclear weapons program, with 92.5 percent of 1,200 respondents believing that North Korea will not abandon its nuclear program.

Although he understands the growing sentiment amid an accelerated buildup of North Korea's nuclear weapons, Park still said such views are "undesirable and impractical."

"With the advent of nuclear weapons in the Cold War came the 'balance of terror' where both sides ― the U.S. and the Soviet Union ― became nuclear powers. So I understand the opinion that to create a balance of fear ― or 'terror' ― we would need nuclear weapons, and because we don't have them, we should arm ourselves," he said.

"However, if South Korea were to arm itself with nuclear weapons, it would shake the foundation of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, and there would be no justification for demanding North Korea's denuclearization. The U.S. will not shake the foundations of the NPT regime."

In October, U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Philip Goldberg told a forum that the U.S.' extended deterrence is the measure to handle North Korea's increasing provocations, describing the calls for the reintroduction of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons as "irresponsible" and "dangerous."

"The U.S. holds the position that it can sufficiently respond to existing threats by strengthening ROK-U.S. extended deterrence," Park said.

"South Korea does not have nuclear weapons. So Seoul must strengthen extended deterrence based on the ROK-U.S. alliance, because it is the most realistic means of countering the North Korean nuclear threat. This should not be viewed as dependence on the U.S."

In response to North Korea's high-intensity provocations, the new South Korean government, along with the U.S., has been taking strong countermeasures, including scrambling stealth jets and firing missiles.

Park expressed concerns that there were no efforts toward de-escalation, saying a failure to do so can create a vicious cycle of tension.

"In the end, it becomes a game of 'chicken' that cannot be solved until both parties turn their steering wheels. If both sides do not turn to make concessions and instead drive straight ahead, it will lead to the destruction of the entire nation," he said.

"South Korea may be the only one who can switch to a dialogue phase between North Korea, which insists on going straight until we turn, and the United States, which has no intention of accommodating North Korea's demands until denuclearization."

He added: "It is necessary to quickly switch to a two-track method that combines carrots (dialogue) and sticks (deterrence)."

The Yoon administration's road map on North Korea policy is explained in the "Audacious Initiative," a three-phase policy package promising the North Korean government an unprecedented level of economic support, most notably for modernizing its infrastructure, in exchange for ultimately giving up nuclear weapons.

Despite acknowledging the need for a comprehensive denuclearization plan in a situation where nuclear talks have been suspended between Washington and Pyongyang, it is not a lack of a plan that has prevented denuclearization negotiations from making progress.

"Trust must be built up between the negotiating parties. However, since the inauguration of the Yoon administration, mutual distrust and confrontation in inter-Korean relations seem to be intensifying," he said.

Relations between South Korea and Japan had been at the lowest point for years due to historical and territorial issues, but the Yoon administration has stepped up efforts to mend ties with Tokyo, calling for a "future-oriented approach" toward the neighboring country in addressing bilateral relations. Yoon also stresses the necessity of trilateral security cooperation between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo to counter North Korea's continued nuclear and missile threats.

Park said the Yoon administration is showing confidence in improving ROK-Japan relations, stating that "a very comprehensive working-level discussion is underway" and that the two leaders have pledged to continue communicating at the top level to resolve the issue of forced labor during World War II.

"There appears to be a comprehensive plan to settle related issues, such as the comfort women issue, export regulations issue, GSOMIA, and the issue of wartime forced labor," he said.

However, he said it remains to be seen if the South Korean government's efforts will be effective given the recent low approval rating of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida because the bilateral relations are also a political issue in Japan.

Plus, he advised the Yoon administration to advance South Korea-Japan relations in consideration of the sentiments of its people, as solving the problems of the past is ultimately the key.

"Rather than rushing to a settlement, it is necessary to build mutual trust by expanding human and cultural exchanges and based on cooperation in the security field between South Korea and Japan," he said.

"Taking a lesson from the fact that during the Lee Myung-bak administration, the GSOMIA negotiations were held behind closed doors and thus caused a great stir, the Yoon administration's negotiation process with Japan should be transparent and disclosed to the public."

Kang Seung-woo


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