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(News Focus) Nuke test stirs debate on how to handle N. Korea's WMD program
SEOUL, Feb. 13 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's decision to detonate another nuclear device in the face of intense international opposition renewed debate on how best to handle the country's ambitions to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD), local observers said Wednesday.

   Observers said the 6-7 kiloton device that was tested by the communist country just before noon Tuesday showed the lack of success South Korea and the rest of the world has in getting Pyongyang to desist from making nuclear weapons. The test is significant because North Korea was censured by the U.N. Security Council three weeks earlier for launching a long-range rocket with a range of over 11,000 kilometers on Dec. 12.

   Nuclear weapons and a delivery system represent meaningful WMD potential. Seoul's spy agency, however, raised doubts as to Pyongyang's true capability in placing a warhead on top of an intercontinental missile and sending it off to hit a distant target.

   "South Korea tried to engage in dialogue with the North for 10 years under presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, which did not prevent the North from developing a nuclear device or long-range rockets," experts said. They added that the "hard-line" stance taken by the incumbent Lee Myung-bak administration did nothing to curtail the North's ambition to become a nuclear power.

   Under President Lee, cross-border dialogue made no headway after the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel by a North Korean torpedo in March 2010 and the shelling of an island in the Yellow Sea that left four people dead, including two civilians.

   Such developments pose challenges for President-elect Park Geun-hye who during her successful campaign pledged to forge a Korean Peninsula confidence building process that can ease tensions and permit broad economic cooperation.

   Already aides to Park, who takes office on Feb. 25 as the country's first female president, hinted that the new government may have to alter plans as a result of the nuclear test. Changes include a tougher stance against the North and dealing firmly with any type of provocations.

   Seoul's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told lawmakers right after the North's latest nuclear test was detected that the communist country's nuclear assets need to be neutralized if there is a clear indication that they may be used in an attack.

   Reflecting such views Choi Kang, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said that unless North Korean leader Kim Jong-un changes his mind, it seems unlikely that Pyongyang will surrender its nuclear and long-range rocket programs.

   "There may be a need to separate the regime and the leadership from the people with support being given to help ordinary North Koreans demand changes," he said.

   Others such as Ryoo Kihl-jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said the North must be made to realize that Seoul will no longer reward bad behavior.

   "The international community should work together to persuade the North (to give up its WMD programs)," the scholar said. He said even if more stringent sanctions are imposed it is important to engage in dialogue with the North.

   Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, said there may be a need to streamline sanctions imposed on the North that can show Pyongyang that the outside world does not seek regime change but only wants it to conform to efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

   "Sanctions in place now can be interpreted as a move to topple the leadership but changing this can send a different message that can help the North make changes," Chang said. He added that such a step can help China play a greater role in exerting pressure on the North. In the past Beijing has generally been less willing to penalize the North for "bad behavior."

   The researcher said that Seoul can also consider using the Sept. 19 joint declaration reached in 2005 as a basis for discussions. Pyongyang agreed to dismantle all nuclear weapons in exchange for a peace treaty to end the Korean War and step-by-step denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

   yonngong@yna.co.kr
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