26 October 2006

North Korea threatens war if Seoul enforces sanctions

Pyongyang has threatened war if South Korea joins the UN mandated sanctions in response to the October nuclear test. On the surface, this seems provacative and suggestive that hostilities would resume if the South participates in the sanctions. However, North Korea has a long and predictable history of posturing in response to potential economic damage.

The so-called "Sunshine Policy" of former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung called for an opening of communication and economic partnerships with their Stalinist friends to the North. Current South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun has continued Kim's engagement strategy which has manifested itself most evidently in the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The Kaesong project is a joint manufacturing facility located on the northern side of the DMZ. President Kim's Sunshine ambitions could be foiled if the South participates in the UN sanctions. The Sunshine Policy has been a failure if success is measured by the North's willingness to dismantle its nuclear program.

Former US President Bill Clinton attempted a diplomatic end to the North's nuclear ambition in 1994 with the Agreed Framework. The Framework provided for light-water nuclear reactors for civilian power generation in exchange for the decommissioning of heavy-water (weapons capable) reactors. The attempted engagement by the United States resulted in a decline of regional security because, quite simply, the North failed to deliver on their side of the agreement, while the US still provided the light-water technology.

The current Pyongyang threat mimics the ongoing strategy of North Korea to use fear as a means to get what it wants. Seoul is faced with a critical decision, the results of which will determine the future of the North Korean regime. If Seoul caves (as they usually have) to the North's threat, then Kim Jong-Il would have effectively proven that threats and posturing will work in influencing Seoul. On the other hand, if the South decides to adhere to the UN mandate, then Kim-Jong-Il will have two choices: return to the six-party talks and disarm its nuclear program or launch an attack on the South.

Although possible war is a horrible extention of foreign policy, the alternative is that North Korea will have effectivly bypassed the UN sanctions and will still be able to continue developing nuclear weapons technology. It would be best for Seoul to press Pyongyang now, while the North's nuclear program is in its infancy, rather than wait until later when the threat of nuclear strikes increases to a dangerous level.

Sun Tzu said in his Art of War, attack when your enemy is at its weakest. The North Korean regime could be at a breaking point. The important straw for this East Asian camel will be if Seoul decides to call the North's bluff and agree to the enforcement of UN sanctions. If Seoul does not have the courage to fight now, the result will be a strong and nuclear armed North with an eye towards Tokyo, Seoul and even Beijing.

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