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T. Endo: Address to World Summit 2013

Commentary on Peace, Security and Development: How to Deal with a Nuclear North Korea?

PhotoJapan has two major pending issues on their diplomatic agenda before they can heal their last remaining wounds from the Second World War. One is the territorial dispute with Russia, with whom Japan must conclude a peace treaty, and the other is North Korea, with whom Japan has to normalize relations. On the latter matter, I have represented the Japanese government in talks with them for a number of years. As preconditions for the full normalization of relations with North Korea, Japan is seeking a solution to the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea as well as a solution to their nuclear and missile program.

As a compromise to the latter, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) was launched by Japan, the US and South Korea in 1995. It was dismantled, however, when North Korea’s uranium enrichment program was exposed. I was disappointed, as I considered myself as one of KEDO’s architects.

In spite of this development, in order to avert the North Korean nuclear program, the Six-Party Talks were held until they were suspended without a tangible outcome. Meanwhile, the situation had deteriorated as Pyongyang conducted several missile launches and nuclear tests.

Though their real progress in nuclear and missile technology is unclear, it is assumed that Pyongyang has stockpiled a considerable amount of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium, and the accuracy of its intermediate-to-long-range ballistic missiles had significantly improved. Presumably, the long-range ballistic missiles (advanced Tepodong missiles) may be capable of reaching the North American continent. Pyongyang is perhaps most keen to miniaturize the nuclear warheads to be loaded onto the missiles, which may happen in a matter of time.

So why does North Korea pursue a nuclear weapons program? Incidentally, nuclear weapons, missiles, and their transport vehicles are inseparable. In Pyongyang’s domestic politics, the program consolidates the military’s support to the regime. Militarily, it supplements their conventional weaponry, which is inferior to South Korea’s, owing to the economic hardship of the North. In diplomatic terms, the so-called ‘nuclear card’ enhances Pyongyang’s status and is a vital deterrent to the US, even forcing the United States to the negotiating table. Apparently, Pyongyang’s objectives have been achieved to some degree.

In any case, it is next to impossible to obligate a country to abandon their nuclear and missile technologies, once they have been acquired. So far, South Africa has been the only exception in this regard.

Since international sanctions have been imposed by the United Nations and some individual nations, the North Korean regime barely sustains itself thanks to its special ties with China.

Due to the incredible difficulty in de-nuclearizing Pyongyang, the international community must respond with either massive rewards or harsh penalties. The former may include large-scale economic assistance, US guarantee for North Korea’s security, or upgrading the existing truce agreement to a peace treaty. Pyongyang must be especially keen about guaranteeing its security. Yet, would these measures lead to Pyongyang’s de-nuclearization? Or will China endorse wholesale sanctions against North Korea?

Whether rewards or penalties, the international community must find a coherent policy. In this regard, relations between the US and South Korea have often times been shaky owing to their domestic politics.

It is never easy to adopt such drastic measures. More realistically, we should envisage the tentative freezing of the nuclear and missile development program and/or its oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency or another UN agency, with the ultimate objective of total de-nuclearization. The Pyongyang regime should be made well aware of severe penalties once they cross the line. On the other hand, a certain number of rewards is indispensable for such measures to work.

Therefore, the Six-Party Talks involving all the main parties is still an important venue for engagement with North Korean officials, though we should not overestimate its merits. To achieve results, it would be wise for China to coordinate its policies with Japan, the US and South Korea.

While Pyongyang is apt to resort to occasional brinkmanship diplomacy, its history shows otherwise. Thus, the international community or individual nations had better keep their options open to Pyongyang.

With the constant progress in the North Korean nuclear and missile development program, the overall situation will become tougher. We, therefore, must at least apply pressure and/or engage in candid dialogue (the stick and carrot). North Korea’s case could very well be a challenge in safeguarding ourselves from regimes, especially Iran, that are developing nuclear capabilities.

As for the abduction agenda, for which the support from the international community is highly appreciated, it is essentially a bilateral issue between Japan and North Korea. This single issue is especially difficult due to the sharp differences between the two sides and because it involves strong emotions among ordinary Japanese. What options are feasible? One is to further tighten sanctions; however, sanctions have not produced the anticipated effects. Besides, Japan is losing the means of imposing further sanctions. Eventually, high-level talks with North Korean leaders may prove to be the last-resort in attempts to reach a political settlement.

Separated by a narrow water channel and entwined in their histories, North Korea is an important neighbor to Japan, and the two nations are destined to be linked in one way or the other. I therefore hope that North Korea becomes a constructive member of the international community and normalizes relations with Japan as soon as possible.

For more information about World Summit 2013, click here.