'North Korea's Nuclear Program Is the Top Priority'

The South Korean ambassador to Israel, Dr. Shin Kak-Soo, expects President Lee Myung-bak's term to bring about a "significant change" in the internal politics of his country.

In an interview with Haaretz, the ambassador says that "the president presented a pragmatic approach regarding the conduct of the nation's affairs. He will conduct a policy of effectiveness and efficiency, and will work to enlarge the pie, so that the weaker classes will benefit from it as well."

Shin, a former legal adviser at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, adds that "the top priority of his foreign policy will be a solution to the North Korean nuclear problem. We are in the process of implementing the agreement to dismantle all the nuclear facilities in the North. This is a complicated process, which requires determination and patience on the part of all the parties.

"The importance that we attribute to the Middle East will also be maintained: 80 percent of our energy sources are in the countries of the Persian Gulf and the region, and constitute an important stage in Korean development." Lee's policy in regard to North Korea is considered tough - at a time when the U.S. administration has come to the conclusion that its policy of the "axis of evil" was not effective. Does Lee's presidency distance the scenario of a unification of the Koreas?

"The pressures to promote reforms in North Korea will continue, even if the manner of implementation is likely to change. The unification of the Koreas is a complex issue about which there is a consensus in the South, which is based on the fear of the collapse of the North.

"Such a scenario would affect not only us, but the entire region. Therefore, all governments that have served the country since the 1980s have adopted a policy of conciliation and engagement designed to lead to opening the North to the outside world.

"There is no question that the unification of Germany in the late 1980s influenced our viewpoint. The Koreans (in the South) understood that such a unification of the two countries was liable to lead to social pressures and a heavy economic burden. Therefore they prefer that the process toward establishing one entity takes place gradually and is implemented only at a late stage." Is it possible to compare Israel's battle against the Iranian nuclear program and your battle against Pyongyang's nuclear program?

"There is a big difference between the nuclear policy of North Korea and that of Iran. Pyongyang needs nuclear power in order to survive. The internal situation in the North is difficult. In the wake of the collapse of its Soviet patron in the 1990s, North Korea lost the entire market of the former Soviet Union. Its agriculture suffered as a result of floods. Millions died of starvation and disease. Many others suffered economically.

"Because of the shortage of food, energy and hard currency, the North searched for some card by means of which it could receive economic assistance and security guarantees from its neighbors, primarily from the U.S. Nuclear weapons are this card.

"Iran, on the other hand, does not need nuclear weapons in order to survive, but in order to become a regional power. Moreover, whereas the entire international community, including China and Russia, opposed the North Korean program, when it comes to Iran the new initiative of sanctions continues to be delayed and it is already clear that it will be weaker than its architects wished."

When your foreign minister last visited here, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni asked him to suspend economic ties with Iran and to join the international sanctions. Will toughening the policy vis-a-vis North Korea lead to a toughening toward Iran as well? Will you support a military option too?

"We support the regime for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, we supported the second proposal by the international community for sanctions against Iran, and we will do the same regarding the third and regarding any international activity to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Anyone who so desires can interpret this as a toughening of our policy, but I anticipate that our policy may not change much - Lee wants engagement of the North, so that we can expect a difference in style rather than in substance.

"Our economic ties with Iran focus on the sales of electronics and cars, and are unrelated to their nuclear policy. We do not sell any equipment that can be used for military purposes. If the UN Security Council decides that sanctions must be imposed in the commercial area as well, we will of course adhere to the decision.

"In the case of an Israeli or American attack - this is a hypothetical question that is better left unanswered, and in any case I hope that the crisis will be solved peacefully. We can assume that a combination of sanctions and diplomatic pressure will be able to solve the crisis - if the international community remains united."