Joining PSI Is No Panacea
South Korea has recently been seriously considering joining the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which is supposedly a mechanism to check the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs).
The PSI was launched with the initiative of former U.S. President George W. Bush in 2003. According to its provisions, member countries make joint efforts to prohibit shipments of WMDs and related goods to terrorists and countries of proliferation. There's a sharp division in the country about whether South Korea should join.
Although the PSI mechanism has been devised to check proliferation across the world and does not have any Pyongyang-centric emphasis, South Korean concern emanates from possible negative repercussions on inter-Korean relations. The previous administration here deliberately avoided joining on the aforementioned basis, consistent with its overall policy of North Korea engagement.
The scholars who argue for South Korea joining the PSI say it's each state's prerogative to choose to participate in certain activities. Opponents argue it would send the wrong signal to North Korea about Seoul's intention and sincerity regarding engagement.
Since its very inception, the Lee Myung-bak administration has been demanding stricter reciprocity from North Korea. However, it's quite obvious now that the changed South Korean policy has hardly helped in sustaining improving inter-Korean relations. In the last year, North Korea has taken many provocative steps, resulting in the shooting of a South Korean tourist at Mt. Geumgang, deteriorating working conditions at Gaeseong Industrial Complex, a significant decrease in inter-Korean exchanges and increased frequency and intensity of provocative North Korean rhetoric.
The situation also got affected as the U.S. went through a significant change of administration, from that of George W. Bush to Barack Obama's, which has not yet been able to complete its North Korean policy review and lacks clear policy preferences vis-a-vis North Korea. The recent North Korean rocket launch could be seen as Pyongyang's deliberate attempt to put pressure on the U.S. to understand the futility of its policy of pressure or containment and emanates more from its desperation to seek bilateral engagement with the U.S. It appears important for North Korea to have a more tolerant and engaging Washington, as it would help to ease pressure of the South Korean and Japanese hard-liners.
In light of the above, it would be better for South Korea to wait until the U.S. comes out with a clear-cut North Korea policy before joining the PSI; the Obama administration is expected to take a more comprehensive view of the North Korean nuclear and missile programs and possibly devise a strategy in which the PSI would be better coordinated with other non-proliferation steps.
The PSI is not per se devised to target the North and there is hardly anything in its content which should be considered anti-North Korea. However, it's not so much content but intent that matters in interstate relations. South Korea has been out of the PSI and if it joins it in haste after the North Korean rocket launch, it could be seen by Pyongyang as another step away from inter-Korean engagement.
It would be better for South Korea to reconsider its changed policy toward North Korea. The South Korean demand for strict reciprocity in dealing with North Korea has already created an unintentional communication gap between Seoul and Pyongyang and by becoming part of the PSI, the gap would widen further.
Although it's important for South Korea to better coordinate its North Korea foreign policy with Washington, the South's top priority should also not be overlooked. In this regard, South Korea should rethink the need for comprehensive and long-term reciprocity professed in previous administrations' engagement policies here.
It's also important for South Korea to improve its exchanges with North Korea before becoming part of the PSI. Improved inter-Korean relations would provide a better background to convey to the North that the PSI is not essentially against it.
In dealing with North Korea, it should not be forgotten that the real issue is how to cap its nuclear and missile programs and establish a peaceful regime on the Korean peninsula. There are various paths toward that goal, which could be broadly categorized into two approaches ― engagement and containment. There might have been flaws in the engagement option but the other option appears to be more obstructive.
Rather than being more obsessed with the PSI, which is one of the various methods to check proliferation, the larger picture should always be taken into account to arrive at any policy option. It appears preferable for South Korea to work along with other regional players to restart the six-party talks.
If South Korea really wants to adopt a proactive policy, rather than join the PSI in haste, it should take diplomatic steps to convince participating states to introduce a step-by-step timeline and devise a coordinated stance among six-party talks countries pursuant to better denuclearizing North Korea, putting a cap on its missile program and helping to build a peaceful regime on the peninsula.
The author teaches at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India. He could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.