Thursday, November 25, 2010

North Korea's Latest Insanity

The artillery barrage may be flashy, but it's what's happening at Yongbyon that's scary

North Korea has once again caught the world's attention, firing hundreds of artillery rounds into Yeonpyeong Island in the West Sea off the Korean Peninsula on Nov. 23, killing two South Korean soldiers and two civilians. That and the US nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker's Nov. 12 report on the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, North Korea, was enough to badly rattle the international community, except of course for China.

The North has introduced a new paradigm. While the shelling was distressing, the fact that the North has attained the capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons through its own centrifuges will shake the existing security structure of Northeast Asia. Now that the ability to stage a nuclear attack is at the core of the regime's survival, possession of nuclear weapons will inevitably upset the asymmetrical security environment of South Korea and Japan, both nuclear have-nots, while sharply igniting the possibility of new tensions and military clashes among the US, China, and Russia, all nuclear haves.

That is because the North's displaying its sophisticated centrifuges to the world plays into its continued emphasis in securing a "strong self-defense power." On top of this, the North has so far successfully put the marketing of nuclear proliferation fear at the center of the US administration, while attempting to break public morale in the South with spectacular, live TV displays that at once expose the South's widespread confusion.

After all, the nuclear threat draws a straight line toward the ontological question for numerous people in the South -- how to live together with a troubled and unpredictable nuke-armed North which has already lost currency with most of the world except for China, its protector.

It remains unclear whether China's lukewarm response will to dissuade the North from any further hostile activity. But with the North's third nuclear test, the now-nuclearized peninsula is severely exposed to high risk of disaster. South Korea now has more urgent concerns than exchanging a massive artillery barrage. They are worried about nuclear bombs going off in Seoul.

Hecker made four trips to the Yongbyon site out of his six visits to the North and he reportedly came away "stunned" at the size and technological progress of the North's home-made centrifuges. Nor is it just Hecker who was in shock. The US intelligence agencies also failed to find the operation with their state-of-art satellite technologies, nor did the South Korean ones.

Unlike plutonium-used weapons made through reprocessing after burning up rods containing filtered natural uranium, nuclear weapons development via enrichment does not need huge space or facilities. It is relatively easy to develop and operate the centrifuges clandestinely in the mountainous territories. It can be thus inferred that the North may have moved the centrifuges to the Yongbyon facility, a target of US intelligence agencies, after secretly completing them somewhere, since they were not evident when Hecker visited there last year.

It appears that the North began reprocessing the plutonium at the Yongbyon facilities as early as the 1970s and already has a significant amount of plutonium through reprocessing several times. According to the North's report conveyed to China in 2008, the regime developed 26 kg of plutonium for nuclear weapons development after extracting it from 36 kg. The North mistakenly admitted the existence of its enrichment program when James Kelly, then US Assistant Secretary of State, visited the communist regime in October, 2002.

Some US analysts on North Korea that I recently met in Washington, DC privately suggested that it's time that the South should consider discreetly and wisely how to come to terms with the violent regime in the North. No doubt that the best time to invest is when there is still uncertainty in the future of the regime, given that the South's liberal and market-oriented economy would obviously face a crisis in the face of never-ending threats by Kim Jong-Il based on the North's nuclear edge.

Needless to say, the very existence of nuclear weapons packs a psychological wallop, with the possibility that any use of them could bring about uncontrollable chaos in the wake of political, economic and social unrest imposed on the South. It appears that firm believers in the nuclear shock doctrine in the North still judge, wrongly, that they can nullify the South completely by means of military advantage. In their logic, the results could be announced as a done deal in the long run, not in months or weeks but in one to two days.

Thus, because the blood-poor North would be unable to maintain its military performance for long in a conventional confrontation, the nuclear option must be taken into serious consideration as one of the top military alternatives -- an early termination of war against the South by using nuclear weapons well before allied forces lands on the peninsula. This could be a factor in making the US reluctant to interfere, for fear of creating additional American deaths when the war front is unexpectedly expanded. If so, an unthinkable disaster on the peninsula would follow inevitably, although the North's military strikes on Yeonpyeong Island Tuesday are not the first sign of another Korean War in the making.

My sense is that the sinking of the Cheonan corvette on March 26, with the loss of 46 South Korean sailors' lives, was a success for the North but that the recent shelling has been a failure in view of the North's voracious appetite for confrontation. It's too stupid to ask for the possibility of the denuclearization in the regime. At the same time, the Kim regime demands people's wrath and so North Korea's nuclear weapons are the one issue that every Korean can agree on.

Now the realities of the North's nuclear weapons program have become more specific. The focus of the nuclear threat will come clearer over time. That is why the South and the US alike should hasten to make all effort to objectively analyze Pyongyang's development of nuclear weapons from the whole perspective of the military, economic, political and social effects, instead of making out-of-focus plans over the die-hard regime.

Unless decision-makers in Washington can turn the North into a politically symbolic model state
in the heart of a denuclearized peninsula, they should instead begin to listen to those in favor of ending the life of Kim, who has mistaken himself for a feudal king, as a seminal example of achieving a nuclear-free world.

By Byong-Chul Lee Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul. Asia Sentinel

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