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Swords to ploughshares

Sept 18,2018
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Dr. Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist and professor at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, speaks at a conference in Seoul on June 27, 2017. [YONHAP]
Chun Young-gi
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Relations between the two Koreas as well as North Korea and the United States cannot make a meaningful step forward unless the North Korean denuclearization issue is solved. Even after developments of an historical nature, the two Koreas and the U.S. find themselves right back at the starting point on the denuclearization front. No amount of spin or wishful thinking can change the fact. Unless there are undeniable moves toward denuclearization from the Kim Jong-un regime, any unilateral steps from South Korea on inter-Korean military or economic cooperation or even legislative ratification of the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could draw a strong backlash from within and shake the ruling power in the south.

Heading to Pyongyang on Tuesday, President Moon is well aware of the priority of denuclearization. In a meeting last week at the Blue House with veterans of North Korean affairs, he emphatically said that Pyongyang must incrementally dismantle its nuclear weapons, materials, facilities and entire nuclear program. If he looks straight into Kim’s eyes and articulates the same idea to his face in his third summit in Pyongyang, he will be able to earn the public’s trust.

“North Korea vowed to go nuclear-free and the U.S. also promised security in its regime,” said Moon. “Since the question is what should come first, a middle ground can be found.” But that is easier said than done. Deciding the order of action is different from yielding a place in a waiting line. To both Pyongyang and Washington, the value of their community and internal order are at stake. If Moon fails to find middle ground between Washington and Pyongyang and returns empty-handed, South Koreans will certainly hold Moon accountable for missing an opportunity for peace.

The predicament is not entirely impossible to solve if policymakers think out of the box. For instance, the nuclear reactors in North Korea that produce materials for nuclear weapons can be converted into plants to manufacture radioactive isotopes used to detect cancer under a joint project of the two Koreas and the United States. The facilities that once produced weapons can be turned into a facility to save people’s lives. It’s like turning swords into ploughshares.

While mediating between Pyongyang and Washington to find common ground to proceed with the denuclearization and a declaration to end the Korean War, Moon can propose to Kim the project of shifting the Yongbyon nuclear complex into a cancer-treating material manufacturing base. The two Koreas have already successfully tried out and operated a joint industrial park in Kaesong. The reactor idea is far less risky and yet can please both Pyongyang and Washington if it succeeds as it can be developed into such a big peaceful project.

The idea is feasible since it comes from Dr. Siegfried Hecker, an expert on plutonium science and professor at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, who has seen North Korea’s nuclear facilities. In an essay he contributed to Foreign Policy on June 25, he proposed practical incremental conversion of the military nuclear sites into civilian use as total denuclearization can be unattainable. U.S. and South Korean engineers can work with North Koreans to extract the source of much-needed medical isotopes from bomb-making nuclear facilities or replace them with South Korea’s modern research reactors, including Hanaro reactors for research installed in the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute. Once North Korean scientists start working on productive and money-making civilian nuclear and space programs, there would be no turning back to their military faculty, he added.

The peaceful conversion of North Korea’s nuclear facility could help North Korea and the United States find a middle ground to roll back the North’s military program and ensure co-existence. Seoul officials heading to Pyongyang must study Hecker’s suggestion as its specific and practical approach will likely convince the opposition at home.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 17, Page 34