South Korea’s Iran

SEOUL – The United States is now wrestling with the nuclear fears of two of its close allies, Israel and South Korea. Israel’s alarm at the prospect of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon is existential in nature. The same is true of South Korea, whose capital sits only 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the border with the North.

On February 29, the US and North Korea reached an agreement in which the North promised to halt its nuclear weapons development in exchange for food aid. But South Koreans know that the poverty-stricken North is highly unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons programs, no matter what it promises. Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s complaint that he was “tired of buying the same horse twice” from North Korea appears to have been forgotten.

To be sure, US President Barack Obama’s administration has had some positive influence on the North, which has now agreed to a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests, and nuclear activities at its Yongbyon facility. Moreover, the North’s hermetic communist regime will accept International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in exchange for food aid. But such promises are usually short-lived.

Moderate pundits argue that the allure of humanitarian aid might dissuade the North from continuing to advance its nuclear weapons program, but they fear that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s government may refuse to assist the US efforts. Some South Koreans hope that the latest agreement will pave the way for revival of the six-party talks between the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan, and Russia, which have been dormant since late 2008, as well as for dialogue on a wide range of strategic and economic issues.