Anne Penketh: Radical options among the search for solutions

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Japan Self-Defense Forces' personnel man PAC-3. Photo / AP
Japan Self-Defense Forces' personnel man PAC-3. Photo / AP

In a region searching for solutions to head off North Korea's nuclear blackmail, where everyone agrees that the status quo is not sustainable, there is one proposal which has the capacity to irk.

A political heavyweight from South Korea's ruling party made a pitch in Washington yesterday for the redeployment of US nuclear weapons in his country, describing the move as the only way to subdue the bellicose North Korean leadership.

"Diplomacy failed because it didn't understand the nature of the regime," said seven-term legislator Chung Mong Joon in a keynote speech to a nuclear policy conference in which he criticised the "misjudgments" by Washington over the years.

"North Korea will not give up its weapons," said the former leader of the governing Saenuri party, adding that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "can't reform because he is a prisoner of the system."

While Chung's analysis of the international community's failure to prevent North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons rings true, his domestic pro-nuclear campaign, which became more vocal after the last nuclear test by Pyongyang in February, is more controversial. The Obama Administration, which is committed to global nuclear non-proliferation, has in the past rejected appeals from South Korean conservatives to redeploy the short-range nuclear weapons which were withdrawn in 1991.

Yesterday Chung also proposed that South Korea should "temporarily" withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in order to develop an independent nuclear deterrent. "Only nuclear weapons can hold the peace," he argued. "Telling us not to go nuclear is tantamount to telling us - only surrender."

Security expert Mark Fitzpatrick told Chung he was a "brave man" for proposing the renuclearisation of South Korea to an audience of non-proliferation experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Miles Pomper, with the James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies, challenged Chung's assertion that North Korea would capitulate, warning of the risk that Japan would follow South Korea down the nuclear weapons path, and that China could react militarily.

South Korean specialist Duyeon Kim wrote in the New York Times recently that development of nuclear weapons by Seoul is not only "not realistic" but would also be a "clear violation of international law."

But Chung's feisty speech in Washington, only weeks before a state visit by the new President, Park Geun Hye, could be an attempt to influence government policy despite the South Korean Defence Ministry maintaining that the country has no intention of bringing back the US weapons. The Washington summit is expected to be dominated by the North Korea challenge which will be the focus of a preparatory visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Seoul this weekend, before he travels to China.

Chung's intervention highlights the difficulties for the United States and its regional allies in defusing the nuclear crisis with the hermit state, which has hit new threat levels in recent days. China's role, as North Korea's main economic enabler and trading partner, is seen as key.

Gareth Evans, a former Australian Foreign Minister, said that in conversations with Chinese officials over the past 15 years, "they have been in a state of constant irritation with the Radical views get hearing North Koreans". The White House has been encouraging Beijing to use its "unique influence" over North Korea and welcomed the statement by the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, who said no country should turn the world into chaos "for selfish gain".

However Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation and disarmament programme at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, suggested Beijing "can't control its vassal state".

Asked what the North Koreans might be seeking to achieve by ratcheting up the military pressure and threatening nuclear war, Fitzpatrick said they were pressing a long-time demand for direct peace talks with Washington.

But "there is also an unexpressed desire to posit an external enemy, against which people have to stand united, and thereby overcome questioning."

Fitzpatrick said he believed the "boy general", Kim Jong Un, was "proving his credentials to the military".

But Paul Carroll, programme director with the US Ploughshares Fund, said that the real problem was "we don't know what they want".

As for next steps, the experts agreed that patience would be required.

Evans, now the chancellor of the Australian National University, recommends that the international community should "keep calm and carry on", despite North Korea's provocative actions.

"What we need is containment, deterrence and keeping the door open for negotiations."

- NZ Herald

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