Tuesday 20 Oct 2020 | 16:17 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 20 Oct 2020 | 16:17 | SYDNEY

South Korea misjudges its northern neighbour

3 June 2011 09:00

Matt Cottee is a PhD student at King's College London and Visiting Fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies.

In 2009, President Obama suggested that the greatest threat to humanity was the risk of nuclear terrorism. In a post-9/11 landscape, suggestions of terrorists acquiring the necessary means to launch a nuclear attack are suddenly being taken seriously. The inaugural 2010 Nuclear Security Summit, held in Washington DC, and the resultant communiqué were Obama's means of highlighting the issue and gathering wide-ranging support.

So, what is expected from next year's follow-on summit, to be held in Seoul? In addition to national progress updates and debates as to whether nuclear safety should be on the agenda post-Fukushima, much deliberation has been given to the guest list.

Initially, the Summit's location was a major talking point — many felt that staging such an event on the Korean Peninsula might facilitate some form of engagement with the North Koreans.

Shortly after the summit in Washington, the North Korean Foreign Ministry stated that the country had 'a willingness to join the international efforts for nuclear non-proliferation and on nuclear material security on an equal footing with other nuclear weapon states'. The 'equal footing' section is perhaps problematic, but engaging on nuclear security would at least allow a renewal of discussions with the North Koreans on nuclear issues.

Unfortunately, South Korea's rigidity has eliminated this possibility. President Lee Myung-bak did in fact offer Kim Jong-il a place at the table. Attached to the invitation however was a precondition that North Korea commit to dismantlement of its nuclear programme. This is hardly a tempting offer in the eyes of the North Koreans and, unsurprisingly, the offer was rejected.

Was this an unrealistic fantasy or a missed opportunity? North Korea's attendance at the conference would have provided a starting point for further discussions. It could have addressed the goal of securing fissile materials in a country of particular concern, which possesses the key components of a nuclear weapon, and has already demonstrated its willingness to sell nuclear technology or materials to the highest bidder.

Although memories of the Cheonan sinking and the Yeongpyeong attack are still fresh in the South Korean psyche, President Lee may have missed an important opportunity on the long road to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

While some would argue that engaging with North Korea would provide it with some form of moral victory or legitimisation, any meaningful traction is unlikely without offering some kind of quo for the first quid.

Photo of the 2010 Nuclear Summitt courtesy of the US Embassy in New Zealand.