Nuclear Issues Center of Debate at Event on Korean Peninsula

Nuclear Issues Center of Debate at Event on Korean Peninsula

A North Korean nuclear missile test in 2009. Source: KCNA/AFP/Getty)

A North Korean nuclear missile test in 2009. Source: KCNA/AFP/Getty)

A torrent of security, diplomatic, and economic challenges intersect on the Korea Peninsula to complicate debates on nuclear issues. While the threat posed by the North Korean nuclear arsenal looms over the region, experts at a recent conference co-hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, D.C. suggested that an evolving security environment could open up new possibilities to alter the nuclear landscape.

The United States and South Korea are currently engaged in talks on the future of nuclear energy cooperation between the two allies. Park Jin, former Chairman of the Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Unification Committee in the South Korean National Assembly, urged Washington to allow Seoul to expand its civilian nuclear program despite concerns about how those activities may impact proliferation risks. According to Jin, decision-makers focus too often on North Korea and not on the needs of South Korea’s civilian nuclear program when discussing nuclear issues on the Korean peninsula. “Under these circumstances,” Jin said “the South Korean government’s desire to revise the nuclear cooperation agreement to allow civilian recycling of the spent nuclear fuel and to move toward uranium enrichment for civilian purposes in a very transparent manner is certainly a challenge.” Nevertheless, South Korea and the United States signed the last so-called “123 nuclear cooperation agreement” over four decades ago when South Korea was still an under-developed economy. Jin insisted today South Korea has become the fifth largest nuclear energy power in the world, and it is crucial that his country supplies nuclear fuel to its domestic reactors in a more stable manner.

Nonetheless, there was a consensus that North Korea’s arsenal of nuclear weapon continues to be the most pressing issue. All the speakers agreed on the crucial role China could and should play to resolve the crisis. Jin underlined progress made during the recent Defense Strategic Dialogue between China and South Korea over this issue. However, according to Troy Stangarone, Senior Director of Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute, “we’ve seen these rhetorical shifts in the Chinese perspective, but we haven’t seen the commitment to move into a more substantial direction on that.” Lee Chung-Min, the South Korean Ambassador for National Security Affairs, considered that a fourth nuclear test from Pyongyang would be a wake-up call: the last thing that Chinese President Xi Jinping wants is for North Korea to become the focus of his administration.

Beyond China, experts considered it open for debate whether Russia can be another crucial player for the stability in Northeast Asia. Choi Kang, Vice President of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, downplayed its role in the region since Russia is more preoccupied by the pressing issue of Crimea and its relations with the West. For Chung-min, however, “we should not underestimate what Russia can do: she is after all a permanent member of the Security Council and a member of the Six Party Talks [over North Korea's nuclear program]. Russia has strategic interests in Korea and beyond.” In these circumstances, South Korea can become an important partner for the Russians. Jin also evoked the Russian pipeline project that would run to South Korea through North Korea as an example of regional collaboration.

The security situation in Northeast Asia is further complicated by the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea between 1977 and 1983. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes to resolve this problem under his administration by using the lifting of some sanctions against Pyongyang as leverage. Such a move can be delicate at a time when the international community is strongly pressuring DPRK through multilateral sanctions to encourage its leadership to abandon nuclear weapons. However, Chung-min did not see these activities as a threat to the international sanctions regime: “As long as North Korea’s negotiation with Japan is focused solely on the abductee issue and doesn’t spill over negatively on other areas such as the nuclear front,” Chung-min concluded, “then I think we can live with that.”

Finally, the historic negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group shed a new light on the North Korean nuclear issue. Pyongyang has been assisting Tehran’s alleged proliferation efforts over the past fifteen years, notably sharing ballistic missile capabilities with the Islamic regime. Chung-min said that lessons learned from the Iranian talks are limited, but the fact that Iran is seeking a third exit probably came as a shock to Pyongyang and added diplomatic pressure on the regime.

As the international community seeks to involve regional nuclear powers such as China to alleviate the threat of a nuclear North Korean, the issue often overshadows Seoul’s pragmatic needs to expand its peaceful nuclear program. The Rising Power Initiative’s Nuclear Debates in Asia project will continue to explore the development of nuclear politics on the Korean Peninsula. Follow the project on Twitter at @Westmyer or visit the project website at http://www.risingpowersinitiative.org/projects/nuclear-debates/.

By Samia Basille, Research Intern at the Rising Powers Initiative

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