The Urgent Need for Deterrence and Diplomacy in Korea

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As of late, naval ships armed with the advanced Aegis Combat System from the United States, Japan and South Korea are on high alert along the shores of the Korean peninsula as a result of the looming threat of a North Korean “satellite” launch, which violates United Nations Resolution 1718, and is expected to take place between April 4 and 8.

Is deterrence necessary in the Korean peninsula, even if North Korea is testing for a “satellite” launch? The answer would be “yes,” and there are several reasons for the deterrence.

It is undeniable that the presence of U.S. military troops in South Korea deters the North. Currently, the U.S. has about 27,000 troops stationed there, according to The Korea Times. Recently, the U.S.-Republic of Korea Combined Forces Command undertook a 12-day military exercise from March 9 to 20. The North protested by closing the border and threatening any civilian aircraft that entered their airspace.

North Korea has signed non-aggression pacts with the South more than once. Yet, they continuously violate them by engaging in naval skirmishes off the western coast of the Korean peninsula. On land, there have been firefights in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Due to the North’s recent aggression, South Korea has increased patrol along the DMZ. It is also worth mentioning that the North has kidnapped two Asian-American journalists along the Chinese-North Korean border.

During the airspace threat in early March, North Korea shut down the military hotline and later reopened it. The hard stance of the South’s President Lee Myung-Bak makes it very difficult for diplomatic efforts. In addition, North Korea, a recipient of U.S. food aid, declined further aid due to the political tensions rising in the Korean peninsula. Most likely, North Korea’s behavior is an attempt to grab the attention of Barack Obama’s administration and usher in a new era of diplomacy.

The back-and-forth changes are a common feature of North Korea’s political tactics. Such tactics are the reason why the U.S. and its allies are increasing military activities near the Korean peninsula to prevent North Korea’s missile launch, despite the North’s claim of testing a communications satellite. North Korean officials told the U.S. that they are weaponizing plutonium, as reported in The New York Times. U.S. and South Korean military officials believe that the North is testing its Taepodong-II ballistic missile, which is capable of reaching Alaska, Hawaii and possibly the West Coast of the U.S.

North Korea’s navy clashed with the South in 1999 and 2002 during an era when South Korea had liberal Kim Dae-Jung as president. Dae-Jung was the mastermind behind the “Sunshine Policy,” which allowed the South to send aid to Pyongyang with a softer tone on the weapons issue. In addition, economic cooperation resulted from this policy when the Gaeseong Industrial Complex opened in late 2004. From 2003 to early 2008, Roh Moo-Hyun continued the Sunshine Policy. History shows that North Korea is a hostile country even when it asks for aid and reconciliation.

Do the U.S. and East Asia desire a potential nuclear standoff?

For the U.S., the answer is “no” because of Washington’s attempts to establish bilateral relations with North Korea. The U.S. is a major proponent of multilateral six-party talks, which indicates the need for diplomacy. The U.S. has sent food aid to impoverished North Korea and warned them about the weapons program. Additionally, the U.S. already has its hands tied due to two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the awful economic crisis and the increasing violence of the drug war in Mexico. As the U.S. is in major debt, military action in East Asia would not be feasible.

As for South Korea, where the threat is more close to home, the world’s 13th-largest economy is facing one of its worst economic crises — on par with the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98. With the value of the won dropping and the Korea Composite Stock Price Index’s current poor value, a war is not a desire for South Koreans either. Reconciliation with the North, which requires diplomatic efforts, has already occurred. The goal of reunification is sought; however, President Lee Myung-Bak’s hard stance toward North Korea is partly to blame for the lurking nuclear threat.

Since Japan has been economically stagnant since the bubble burst of the early 1990s, a war with North Korea would also be devastating economically because Japan is facing its worst economic crisis now. Instead, Japan prefers multilateral six-party talks to approach North Korea.

China, the world’s manufacturer, does not want war either. The global economic crisis has hit China’s market too. Even China is willing to stop North Korea’s missile threat, via sanctions, according to The Korea Times. Diplomacy is essential for North Korea to prevent sanctions from China.

The denuclearization of North Korea would mean the entire Korean peninsula would be free of nuclear weapons after reunification. According to The Korea Times, a U.S. congressional report states that Japan will go nuclear if unified Korea has nuclear weapons. A nuclear Japan would be catastrophic for East Asia if Korea has nukes in addition to the already powerful nuclear China.

Diplomacy and the denuclearization of North Korea are the best political tactics to ensure peace within East Asia. By preventing future nuclear weapons development in North Korea, the two Koreas can sign a peace treaty eventually leading to a unified Korea instead of the current hostile stance due to an armistice signed back in 1953.

Marvin Lee is a fourth-year political science and international studies double-major. He can be contacted at mlee18@uci.edu.

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