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Peace and Stability in Northeast Asia: The Korean Question and the Role of the United States
Dr. Mark Barry, UPF Director of Research and Special Projects
Tokyo, Japan
December 9, 2006

Remarks from the First International Youth Forum, on the topic "Peace and Stability in Northeast Asia: The Roles of the US, Japan and Korea," sponsored by the Youth Federation for World Peace on Dec. 9, 2006, Tokyo, Japan.


The North Korean nuclear issue is a symptom of a larger problem: the division of Korea in 1945 and the inability of the two Koreas and major powers to end Korea?s unnatural division. This is what is meant by the Korean Question.

The problem is not merely of ending the Armistice that ended the Korean War, or the absence of a peace treaty. The problem is that Korea never should have been divided; but because it was ? through responsibility of the U.S., Soviet Union and Japan ? two sovereign states have existed on the Peninsula since 1948 for one Korean nation. In 1991, those two states became members of the UN; interestingly, on January 1, 2007, a citizen of one of them will become Secretary General of the UN.

My key point is that North Korea itself, with its nuclear weapons and missiles, is not the essence of the problem. Properly resolving the problem of North Korea really means to eventually address the underlying injustice of Korea?s division, which is as much the responsibility of the major powers as it is of the two Koreas themselves. Sixty-one years is long enough; the two Koreas should take great strides toward integration and eventual unification well before the 70th anniversary of its liberation and division.

Frankly, since the June 2000 summit between President Kim Dae Jung and Chairman Kim Jong Il, six years have been wasted that could have been used to positively transform the Peninsula. The U.S. bears a large share of responsibility for this. As flawed as was the 1994 Agreed Framework between the DPRK and U.S., it verifiably halted the North?s nuclear program. The North?s efforts to begin a clandestine heavy enriched uranium (HEU) program were a consequence of the North?s perception of insincerity on the part of the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration could have handled this issue in a manner less confrontational than it did in October 2002; instead careless diplomacy led to the collapse of the Agreed Framework. In the meantime, a rather anti-American administration took office in South Korea, and worsened ties with the U.S. have since been the outcome.

Moreover, a Clinton-Kim summit was a distinct possibility in January 2001, but the U.S. chose to halt negotiations on a missile deal with the North when the 2000 presidential election indicated no clear winner for 36 days. How different U.S.-DPRK relations might have been if President Clinton had gone to Pyongyang to sign a missile deal. Liaison offices could have opened leading toward normalized relations, and the North?s economic and political isolation could have been reduced, opening up the society to new influences.

Today, from the American perspective, the North Korean nuclear issue cannot be seen in isolation. The U.S. has even bigger problems in the Middle East, with a virtual civil war in Iraq, a defiant Iran, and an Arab-Israeli conflict that easily could again escalate into war. Jordan?s King Abdullah II warned late last month that not one but three civil wars were on the verge of erupting in the region.

With these multiple crises in the Middle East and Northeast Asia, the U.S. has suffered an enormous loss of prestige whose consequences will be more severe and long-lasting than America?s retreat from Vietnam. Whether or not American troops complete a pullout from Iraq by 2008, the debacle resulting from the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq indicates to many that the U.S. is no longer capable of sustaining its preeminence in a unipolar world. The U.S. will no longer be capable of imposing its will unilaterally, whether through political or military means, but will need to work together with other major powers for concerted action.

Ironically, North Korea is by far the easiest crisis to solve. The George W. Bush administration?s policy, while understandably moralistic, was in essence unrealistic and counterproductive. This is despite the fact that the forum of the Six Party Talks ? involving for the first time the two Koreas and four major powers ? was inherently the correct way to proceed. The problem has been that of the four major powers, only the U.S. pursued a de facto policy of some ill-defined form of regime change in the North through political and financial pressure. Why bother to pretend to negotiate with a regime whose demise you are actually trying to bring about?

While the U.S. pursued this strategy, since 2003, North Korea has reprocessed significantly more plutonium and even tested a crude device in October. North Korea has not collapsed. In fact, its ability to withstand all forms of pressure as well as natural disaster are probably without equal in the world.

More importantly, what this policy has done is compel North Korea to temporarily make an accommodation with its neighbor, China, to compensate for the American pressure. And China is all too happy to oblige. So what will be the result? At minimum, increasing (but unwelcome) Chinese economic and political influence in the North; at worst, the possibility that China will so closely tie North Korea?s economy into its own that it would become a de facto Chinese vassal state. That would mean continued Korean division for years to come. And if I were a Korean ? North, South or overseas ? I would be indignant that once again another major power decides the fate of my nation (and in this case, out of ignorance than imperialistic motives).

Are U.S. policymakers that na?ve? I don?t think so. But I have come to the conclusion that the Bush administration believes the best solution to the nuclear crisis is to allow North Korea ? whether with or without Kim Jong Il in power ? to come into Chinese custody. The assumption is that China will stabilize North Korea ? through whatever means of persuasion or coercion ? because China requires stability on its frontiers, especially in the Northeast.

Ironically, reliable information indicates that North Korea has concluded that among all the ?imperialist? powers surrounding it ? China, Russia, Japan, and the U.S. ? it is most likely able to maintain ?national independence? (i.e., regime survival) through improving relations with the United States. For that reason, evidence indicates, that although North Korea is using its nuclear weapons program foremost as a deterrent to guarantee its own security, it would be willing to supplant a military means of guaranteeing its security with a new-found relationship of trust with the U.S. In other words, the DPRK is willing to completely, verifiably and irreversibly denuclearize, IF it can establish and sustain a relationship of genuine trust with the U.S. beginning at the highest levels. Not only does North Korea find the U.S. less threatening than any of its other neighbors, but it can no longer balance its relations with China by leaning toward Russia, as Russia today is too weak politically and economically.

Obviously, if the U.S. understood and accepted this evidence, it would see that it is undeniably in the American interest to cautiously pursue and test these possibilities. A way to jumpstart this process would be for President Bush to send a high-level emissary, whether public or private, to meet with Kim Jong Il. It could be Secretary Rice, James Baker, Colin Powell, or even the President?s father, George H. W. Bush. But in North Korea?s unique societal structure and regime dynamics, this opening of trust can only be achieved through senior-level engagement. It cannot be achieved through a bureaucratic level, which includes the principal negotiators in the Six Party Talks. While the Six Party Talks need to recommence, in the long-run they should confirm and corroborate the agreements that could be made at such a senior level. One can only hope that after the results of last month?s American congressional elections that the Bush administration will be more open to alternative strategies in dealing with North Korea.

Frankly, what I have outlined is a fairly simple solution to this 15-year-long North Korean nuclear crisis when compared to the morass the U.S. must deal with in Iraq, as well as with Iran and the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. This means, if nothing else, that it is an achievable success for the Bush administration in the two years remaining in his term. The other crises are not likely to see a viable solution for years to come.

I am optimistic about the role that Japanese prime minster Abe can play regarding Korea. As soon as he took office, he met with the leaders of China and South Korea to end deteriorating relations. And his predecessor, prime minister Koizumi, also played a constructive role by personally meeting Kim Jong Il twice. However, despite his close personal ties with President Bush, Japan was not able to play the role of honest broker between North Korea and the U.S.

In the end, the best policy is for there to be a united front between the U.S., Japan and South Korea. Then China will have to accommodate the firm united policy of these three allies. Conversely, what should be avoided is for the U.S. to become marginalized, intentionally or not, in the affairs of East Asia, with China thus rising to undisputed preeminence

In conclusion, let me remind you that the end goal is not merely the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, or the creation of a peace treaty ending the Korean War, but the establishment of an independent, undivided and re-integrated Korea, which was the yearning of the Korean people for the past 100 years. Although it is a complex process that will take considerable time, the active role of the United States is indispensable for that goal to be achieved. Thus, for the U.S., its goal must focus beyond the achievement of nonproliferation, beyond establishment of a peace regime in Korea, but on the realization of the ideals in that song sung by Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, the song ?Tongil (Unification).?

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