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Acting Mannerly Toward N. Korea?

Posted May. 14, 2010 12:05,   


The government has shown a lackluster response to the report made Wednesday by North Korea’s official Rodong Shinmun (Labor Newspaper) that Pyongyang produced a nuclear fusion reaction. Experts scoff at the report given the low level of the North’s science and technology. The daily hailed the supposed achievement as “a breakthrough in new energy development,” which is believed to suggest Pyongyang’s intention to seek power generation through nuclear fusion.

Nuclear power generation is more difficult than producing atomic bombs. So power generation through nuclear fusion is a tougher task than producing hydrogen bombs. The U.S. conducted the world’s first H-bomb test in 1952, but has since been unable to make a fusion furnace. It is building the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor jointly with other nations. Experts say North Korea is lying about its fusion activities, as the communist country cannot even build a nuclear power plant by itself. Yet Pyongyang’s ability to prove its announcements true on occasion should not be forgotten.

Faced with a political and economic crisis following the collapse of the communist bloc in the early 1990s, Pyongyang started nuclear development to defend its system and secure energy sources. While negotiating with the U.S. on ending its nuclear development, North Korea developed nuclear weapons under the pretext of nuclear power generation and conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and last year. It also test-fired ballistic missiles in 1998 and 2009. Each time, Pyongyang made threats in advance, but Seoul simply reacted by making conventional comments. The South also failed to detect the North’s true intentions or devise thorough measures to cope with the situation.

Three days after the South prevailed in an inter-Korean naval skirmish in the Yellow Sea in November last year, the North’s state-run television station threatened a “merciless” military response. After North Korean leader Kim Jong Il inspected a naval fleet command, the station escalated its threats by saying its military would mobilize all of its attack and defense capabilities to destroy the “stronghold of aggression.” The North’s supreme military command put all armed forces into a combat mobilization posture March 8, when South Korea and the U.S. began their annual joint exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle.

While the North escalated the atmosphere of retaliation, the South responded in a mannerly fashion by saying submarine maneuvers were impossible in the Yellow Sea and that the South could defeat the North in a naval skirmish. Then came the sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan March 26. If Seoul uses the same mannerly reaction, bigger problems could occur.

The North is adept at shaking its southern neighbor with surprises. After the South suspended tours to the North’s Mount Kumgang resort in the wake of the killing of a South Korean tourist there, Pyongyang gradually escalated pressure and finally seized South Korean-held assets at the resort. Seoul should not give in to the pressure and respond by properly reading the North’s mind. The South also needs to thoroughly prepare for what could happen to the inter-Korean industrial complex in Kaesong.