Tuesday, September 14

South Korea's Big Stick

There are new nuclear developments from the Korean peninsula. This time South Korea is in the hot seat (on purpose?).

The story is reported in Time Magazine "Awkward Fallout: Seoul's admission of nuclear experiments raises uncomfortable questions"
Four years ago, a handful of scientists at a government-run South Korean nuclear research institute were experimenting with a gun that blasts laser beams at elements like gadolinium. The experiments weren't successful and the scientists decided to dismantle the equipment. But before they did, somebody suggested using the laser to enrich uranium—a process that produces the fuel for one type of nuclear bomb. "Scientists are full of curiosity," explains Chang In Soon, president of the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, where the experiment took place. "They're interested in this kind of thing."

That unlikely tale was Seoul's explanation last week for the startling news that its scientists had been caught enriching uranium—the very activity Washington is trying to get North Korea to halt. (Pyongyang also has a plutonium-based weapons program, the focus of continuing six-nation negotiations.) South Korea foreswore its nuclear weapons program in 1975, and has since been under the inspection regime of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. Last February, the government signed a protocol giving the IAEA the right to more information and to inspect sites anywhere in the country. Seoul had six months to make a full declaration of its nuclear research, and the IAEA started asking uncomfortable questions about the institute in Daejon.

On Thursday, a Science and Technology Ministry spokesman admitted that scientists there produced 0.2 grams of enriched uranium in 2000. (At least 10 kilos are needed to fuel a weapon.) Late last week, the government said it wasn't sure whether it had violated its nonproliferation commitments.

There is no evidence that Seoul is trying to go nuclear, but the revelation couldn't have come at a more awkward time. "This incident is extremely unhelpful and damaging," says a Western diplomat in Vienna. He says Seoul must be dealt with sternly or countries like North Korea and Iran might reasonably object that they've been unfairly vilified for developing their own nuclear programs. Not surprisingly, Seoul is in serious spin mode. Across the DMZ, North Korea's Kim Jong Il must be enjoying a quiet chuckle at its expense.
In the Washington Post South Korean officials insist that
South Korea has never had, and does not have, enrichment or nuclear reprocessing programs, let alone a weaponization program," said Oh Joon, an official in South Korea's Foreign Ministry.

Oh referred to the 2000 enrichment test -- conducted at a nuclear research center south of Seoul -- as an "isolated scientific experiment" and dismissed comparisons between it and suspected nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

"Since this was a one-time, isolated scientific experiment, not part of any enrichment or weaponization program, we think this should not, and will not, have any impact on the ongoing six-nation nuclear talks" Oh said.
North Korea's Kim Jong Il is not having a quiet chuckle about this news and of course it will have an enormous impact on the ongoing six-nation talks as well as the strategic balance in Asia. The South Korean revelations are probably not a secret that just now got out somehow but a matter of carefully calculated state policy. Basically, Seoul is letting the world know what it is capable of doing and deliberately raising questions about what else it may have already done regarding nuclear research and arms.

Earlier this summer the U.S. announced a major withdrawal of forces from South Korea that had been stationed right up on the DMZ for over fifty years. This move was motivated in part because America had other pressing military obligations in Iraq, for example, and accompanied plans to redeploy troops from Western Europe.

Washington justified the plans by noting that Korea was a prosperous and vibrant democracy with first rate armed forces that no longer needed an American 'trip wire' on their northern border guaranteeing U.S. involvement in the event of war. Rather, even American forces that remained would be deployed further back with options for more flexibility if needed.

These decisions were made amidst stalled multilateral talks to convince North Korea to give up its own nuclear program. North Korea has one of the largest military establishments in the world and all of it is pointed southwards. Indeed, North Korea is more a Communist party and army grafted onto a country than a country that happens to be well armed.

This despite the fact that it has largely failed to function as a society capable of any more than maintaining its current regime and threatening its neighbors and the U.S., who in turn actually feed the North Korean people and provide other desperately needed aid.

South Korea's dealings with the North have been curious. Large elements of the population and at times Seoul act as though they were bystanders to a problem between morally equivalent U.S. and North Korea intransigence. In "Seoul Tries Hard to Keep Its 'Sunshine Policy' Free of Clouds" the New York Times (registration required) reports on Seoul's relations with the North. Despite great efforts
Few South Korean overtures are reciprocated. For example, under bills now in the National Assembly, South Koreans would be allowed to freely access North Korean Web sites and to travel to North Korea. South Korea's official defense papers would no longer describe North Korea as "the main enemy." Other bills would end national security laws banning advocacy of North Korea's Communist system.

None of these moves has been met with a wisp of a concession from North Korea. Instead, North Korea recently restricted cellphone use and travel to China.

"What is needed is a phased development program that draws the North Koreans out and opens them up," said C. Kenneth Quinones, an American aid worker who recently spent several days in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital. "But South Korea is doing a hodgepodge that is not going anywhere. The North Koreans are getting everything they need, without giving anything back."
This looks startingly like appeasement. This 'Sunshine Policy' to the evidently hostile North Korea probably made the Bush Administration decide that it was time for Seoul to take its own security more seriously. It is also probably because of the failure of the 'Sunshine Policy' that the world has learned now of South Korea's nuclear potential.

Kim Jong Il is certainly an intended recipient of this message in addition to Russia and China who have been slow to pressure the North in the nuclear talks. Neither wants a nuclear arms race in East Asia that may draw in Taiwan and Japan.

Why should anyone be surprised if this were the case? Imagine the world from the South Korean point of view during the early 1970s: The U.S. was leaving South Vietnam despite an enormous commitment of blood and prestige. Among the victors were Moscow and Beijing.

Both represented independent and broad spectrum threats to South Korea and they were also the major patrons of a North Korea which was as always hostile and dedicated to conquest of the South. To many observers at the time America seemed to be in retreat and the Soviets ascendant worldwide.

The eventual Sino-American alliance against the Soviets may not have made things much better from Seoul's point of view. As a result the North turned more solidly towards the Soviets and after Mao's death Deng started reforms that changed China from a paper tiger to a real Asian power.

Remember that despite Mao's belligerence and small nuclear arsenal, his basic policies evident in disasters such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution kept China quite weak, poor and far removed from any ability to project power for several decades.

According to Global Security
South Korea began a nuclear weapons program in 1970, in response to the Nixon Doctrine's emphasis on self-defense for Asian allies. Following the withdrawal of 26,000 American troops, the South Korean government established a Weapons Exploitation Committee, which decided to pursue nuclear weapons. By 1975 the US had pressured France into not delivering a reprocessing facility, effectiely ending attempts to develop nuclear weapons. Under pressure from the United States, Korea ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) on 23 April 1975. Although President Park Chung-Hee said in 1977 that South Korea would not develop nuclear weapons, he continued a clandestine program that only ended with his assassination in October 1979.

South Korea may have had plans in the 1980s to develop nuclear weapons to deter an attack by the North. The plans were reported to have been dropped under US pressure. However, the reports seem to have emanated in the form of hearsay from a South Korean opposition legislator, with no confirmation from US or South Korean officials, or independent sources. The United States remained concerned, as indicated by the "special" inspections that the US conducts at the center of Seoul's nuclear research, the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) located at Daeduk, near the city of Taejon. The United States maintains a ban on plutonium being supplied to the South Korea.
Now Seoul says that in 1982 just a few short years after both the supposed and secret ends of the South Korean program that plutonium extraction was taking place. The end of the Cold War brought about hopes that peaceful reconciliation with the North was possible but it clearly did not work. The same old struggle of totalitarian aggression and the need to resist was further complicated by a nuclear North Korea on the verge of collapse.

Two other nations in the region Taiwan and Japan have already demonstrated some of the interest and every bit of the ability to quickly deploy nuclear arsenals if needed.

To quote Teddy Roosevelt it seems that the South Korean government now 'will speak softly AND carry a big stick'.

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