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A View of the North Korea — U.S. Nuclear Crisis from South Korea: An Interview with Hye-ran Oh

Ms. Hye-ran Oh is the Director of the Peace and Disarmament Team of Solidarity for Peace and Reunification in Korea (SPARK). Formed in 1994 SPARK, a non-governmental organization based in South Korea, works towards national self-determination, peace and disarmament, establishment of a peace structure on the Korean peninsula, and the reunification of Korea. While attending the 2010 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in New York this month, SPARK also presented in several educational forums including “North Korea’s Bomb and the Road to Peace” on May 12th, with representatives of the American Friends Service Committee and the National Campaign to End the Korean War.

The recent sinking of the South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, is clear evidence of the fragility of the Korean War truce and the urgent need for the parties to diffuse the rapidly escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula. Ms. Oh traveled to the U.S. this month to share SPARK’s view that peaceful engagement with North Korea, including direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea to end the Korean War, is the most appropriate means of resolving continuing hostilities on the peninsula.


[Takagi]: Please talk about why SPARK came all the way to New York for the NPT conference.

[Oh]: Over the past 20 years, North Korea’s nuclear weapons have become a hot issue internationally but no one has really talked about why — what are the reasons that prompted North Korea to develop nuclear weapons. Governmental organizations are definitely not discussing this, but even among non-governmental organizations there’s little talk or understanding of the historical reasons for this. Many people talk and criticize the fact that North Korea has nuclear weapons, and there hasn’t been a real effort to examine the reasons that led to this situation. But in order for us to find a realistic solution to this crisis, we need to get to the reasons that led to it. So SPARK has come to New York to increase public awareness about what led to North Korea’s developing nuclear weapons, by participating in a range of different programs while we’re here. In that way, we hope to contribute to Korea’s denuclearization and the establishment of peace on the peninsula.

[Thomas Kim]: What are your impressions coming out of U.S. Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth’s visit to Pyongyang?

[Takagi]: So what are these reasons?

[Oh]: After the Korean war ended, an armistice was signed, which was a temporary truce, so legally we are still in a state of war in Korea. And shortly after the armistice was signed, South Korea and the U.S. signed a mutual defense treaty and entered into a military alliance. A military alliance is collaboration between countries in preparation for war – and in the case of Korea, this is an offensive posture that both countries have taken against North Korea. As such, South Korea and the U.S. have militarized the peninsula and they have developed high tech weapons, a military strategy against North Korea, and every year, they carry out massive war exercises. And for the past 60 years, North Korea has felt a security threat because of this R.O.K.-U.S. alliance, and as North Korea’s conventional weapons are so inferior, they are not able to defend themselves. So as a self defense measure, North Korea was led to develop its nuclear weapons.

[Takagi]: Would North Korea really denuclearize? The U.S. media has portrayed North Korea as failing to abide by its agreements to do so. How do you respond to that?

[Oh]: North Korea has been very consistent. They have always said that their position is this: they are willing to give up their nuclear weapons if the U.S. abandons its hostile policies and aggressive posture against them. This is consistent with North Korea’s stated reason for developing nuclear weapons — that it feels threatened by the U.S. This means that denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is quite simple. All the U.S. has to do is abandon its hostile policies towards North Korea and stop threatening to undermine the sovereignty of North Korea.

Under the Clinton administration, the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework was signed. However, because the U.S. believed that North Korea’s regime was on the verge of collapse, it didn’t follow through on what it agreed upon in the Geneva Framework (provision of light water reactors, and making timely shipments of heavy fuel oil). North Korea followed through on 90% of what it agreed to in the Framework, whereas the U.S. only followed through on 10% of its agreements. Then the Bush Administration publicly violated the Geneva framework – labeling North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” and including North Korea as one of 7 targets for potential preemptive nuclear strikes in its 2002 Nuclear Posture Review.

Today, in regards to North Korea, there are no fundamental differences between the Bush administration and the Obama administration. Obama continues to carry out war exercises on the Korean peninsula and continues to isolate North Korea through economic sanctions. In Obama’s recent Nuclear Posture Review both Iran and North Korea were exempted from its negative security assurance, meaning that while the U.S. agreed not to attack non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons — this does not apply to Iran and North Korea. And in the recently signed START treaty between the U.S. and Russia, where they agreed to decrease their strategic nuclear warheads to fewer than 1550, the U.S. still reserved the right to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent measure. However, there is a slight difference, in that the Bush administration always kept a military option on the table in terms of dealing with North Korea, whereas current Secretary of Defense Gates has publicly stated that the military option has been ruled out. So in that sense, there is a difference.

North Korea has clearly stated three conditions for giving up its nuclear weapons. It has said that (1), the U.S. must abolish the extension of its nuclear umbrella to South Korea, which is a very offensive posture towards North Korea, and (2) the U.S. and South Korea must abolish their military alliance, which again was formed in preparation for war against North Korea, and threatens the latter’s national sovereignty. And (3) the U.S. must end its hostile policies towards North Korea.

It seems as though the Obama administration wants to achieve denuclearization by forcing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons – without meeting those 3 conditions. It seems that the Obama administration wants to try to take care of this problem, giving as little as possible from the U.S. side in negotiations. But in my opinion, if that’s Obama’s stance, it will be difficult for him to resolve the Korean peninsula question and the nuclear crisis. It’s my belief that the longer it takes the U.S. to resolve this crisis, the more that the U.S. will have to do in the future to resolve it.

The U.S. has two choices — to enter into sincere negotiations and dialogue with North Korea or to try to contain and isolate North Korea through sanctions and other policies. It’s SPARK’s opinion that the longer the U.S. takes to resolve this crisis, the more that North Korea will continue to develop its nuclear weapons and increase its arsenal. Moreover, the surrounding countries in Northeast Asia, such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, have all expressed interest in developing their own nuclear weapon programs. So it’s actually in the strategic interests of the U.S. to diffuse nuclear tensions in that region and to resolve the crisis with North Korea as soon as possible.

[Takagi]: How would you describe how people in South Korea feel about this issue?

[Oh]: Back in 2002, 53% of the people in South Korea believed that once a peace treaty was signed, the U.S. forces in South Korea should leave. In 2006, the South Korean government’s Reunification Research Institute did another survey and 67% of South Koreans believed that U.S. forces should leave. So this is proof that more and more people in the south believe that the military alliance with the U.S. is outdated and no longer benefits our national interest. Many people in South Korea believe that it’s time we began to collaborate and enter into agreements with other countries in the Northeast Asian region, and that to be so dependent on the U.S. through this military alliance is contradictory to this effort. So many people believe that the military alliance should end.

[Takagi]: When you say the U.S. should “end hostile policies”, what do you mean exactly?

[Oh]: Yes, I am talking about a peace treaty. What I mean by abandoning hostile policies is that in the content of the peace treaty, we have to talk about disarmament. Right now, South Korea and the U.S. have the capacity, the military capacity to invade and occupy North Korea. And in addition, South Korea continues to grow its military budget every year. According to SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), North Korea’s military budget does not increase every year; they don’t have the capacity to increase their conventional weapons systems — and that’s why they have developed nuclear weapons instead. So what we need to do through a peace treaty is to actually abolish this kind of system. The peace treaty thus needs to include the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea and the abandonment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Then North and South Korea must mutually disarm, so their military capacities are only for self-defense and not for invading and occupying each other.

*JT Takagi, KPI Board member, interviewed Hye-ran Oh on May 2, 2010.


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