Speaking Tuesday at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think-tank, Joon Oh said the nuclear matter remains the biggest post Cold War issue on the peninsula. North Korea broke off the six-party talks in 2008 that would have ended its nuclear weapons and missile delivery programs in exchange for modern nuclear reactors. The other participants in the talks, which began in 2003, were the United States, China, Russia, Japan and the Republic of Korea.
Before the negotiations stalled, North Korea refused to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, a U.N. organization, to monitor its facilities. North Korea had earlier withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
“North Korea chose not to give up the nuclear weapons,” and that led to U.N. Security Council-imposed sanctions. Sanctions included an arms embargo, banning of the export of luxury goods—from fine wines to expensive automobiles—and later was expanded to cover travel, the curbing of financial services and freezing assets.
While Seoul believes in a two-track approach of sanctions and dialogue with North Korea, Oh added sanctions “work only in accumulated form . . . because they hurt. No country in the world is an island.”
Joseph Bosco, a former Defense Department official and now a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said during the Heritage program that from the start Beijing “tolerated and even encouraged” North Korea’s nuclear weapons program because it provided China with leverage in North Asia.
“I think [the Chinese] have been playing a game for 20 years” of saying it is trying to halt North Korea’s nuclear program.
Chinese reach in the Pacific goes well beyond the Korean Peninsula, Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said, looking at China’s island reclamation projects from coral reefs as a means for Beijing “to turn the South China Sea into an inland sea” where it can say “hands off and stay out.”
He called China’s claim to the so-called “9-dash line” as its outer border “ridiculous” and “dangerous.” The line includes a number of disputed islands close to the Philippines, Malaysia and other nations.
But in some ways, he said, the reclamation project can be seen as similar to the passing of an American aircraft carrier on the open sea.
“We should have free access [to the waters around the reefs] and so should everyone else, open to commercial ships, open to recreational ships, open to warships.” O’Hanlon added, there “is no International Law of the Sandbar Convention.”
O’Hanlon said reclaimed islands cannot have 12-mile territorial claims and the U.S. Navy should sail in those waters, possibly passing an oiler or supply ship through them to demonstrate that it considers them international waters.
He said that the creation of a consortium involving China and other nations in the region to explore the seabed in the South China Sea for resources should not be a concern of the United States if it “is equally shared” based on investment.
Back on the Korean Peninsula, Oh said North Korea’s record on human rights has drawn U.N. attention and since had been referred to the International Criminal Court for investigations of “crimes against humanity.” Human rights remains the second most pressing issue in relations with Pyongyang. But lacking the power of Security Council sanctions, the U.N.’s actions are more just “naming and shaming” Pyongyang into better behavior.
The last pressing issue, he said, is the rising need for humanitarian assistance to the north. Oh said the level of international contributions of food and medicine has declined recently in the wake of sanctions that has frightened off potential donors. But North Korea continues to have great difficulty feeding its citizens, a situation worsened by recent drought.
Oh said South Korea remains the largest donor nation of humanitarian assistance to Pyongyang.