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Reunification: Building Permanent Peace in Korea

Paul L. Liem | December 1, 2008

What are the historical roots of the U.S. — D.P.R.K. conflict; how should U.S. policy adapt to a rapidly changing Korea; what are the challenges to Korean unification; and what are the prospects for a permanent peace in Korea? On October 10, 2008, eight eminent Korea scholars and policy analysts met in Berkeley, CA to pose answers to these questions.

The conference, “Reunification: Building Permanent Peace in Korea,” was convened by the Korea Policy Institute (KPI) and International Area Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Coinciding with the U.S. presidential campaign, the conference was intended as a primer on a wide range of issues in U.S. — Korea relations to be addressed by the next administration. The urgency for the U.S. and the D.P.R.K. to normalize relations and for a permanent peace to replace the fragile Korean War truce were common themes throughout the day.

On behalf of International Area Studies, Clare You, Chair of the Center for Korea Studies, welcomed an engaged audience of over 200 participants from all walks of life. Reflecting on the words “peace” and “reunification,” she called them “two abstract concepts…yet so deeply ingrained in the minds of Koreans and people interested in Korea.” On behalf of KPI, Executive Director Thomas Kim told the participants, “we hope today’s events will provide a forum for a sustained discussion on pragmatic U.S. policy options that will build towards reunification and stable, peaceful relations between the U.S., North Korea, and South Korea, and towards friendship between the people’s of the U.S. and Korea. Kim explained that the mission of KPI “is guided by the premise that a reasonable U.S. policy towards Korea must be supportive of peace, sovereignty, reconciliation and the reunification of Korea.”

Conference speakers included historian Bruce Cumings, professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Chicago; Gi-Wook Shin, Director of the Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University; John Feffer, Co-Director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute of Policy Studies; Philip Yun, Vice President for Resource Development at the Asia Foundation; Jae-Jung Suh, Director of the Korea Studies Program of the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University; Karin Lee, Executive Director of the National Committee on North Korea; Martin Hart-Landsberg, Director of the Political Economy Program at Lewis and Clark College; and Selig Harrison, Senior Scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy.

What follows are key points made by each of the speakers.

I. Historical Roots of the U.S.-D.P.R.K. Conflict — Bruce Cumings

In the U.S. the Korean War is often called the forgotten war. But in his 1981 visit to North Korea professor Bruce Cumings told the audience that he “was struck by the degree to which the war seemed to have ended only a few years earlier.” Cumings asked the audience to imagine what it would have been like if “every American city had been flattened over a period of not of one day (in reference to the 9/11 attacks), but for three years…That’s what happened in North Korea…It’s an amazing situation we’re in, where one of the most violent bombing campaigns, especially incendiary bombing, in the 20th century is almost unknown in this country.”

The bombing decimated the North Korea population, affecting all families, according to Cumings. “Nobody knows how many Koreans died in the Korean War. Most scholars accept the figure of two million North Korean civilians. The initial population in North Korea in the 1950s was 8 million. So we’re talking about a holocaust like the one that hit Poland or Russia during WWII. Maybe it was less but it was just a horror,” he said.

“We are always hearing that the Japanese have not come clean about their history…if it says ‘aggression’ against China, no we’ll say its ‘advance’ against China. They make comments all the time, their leaders do, about how much they did for Korea during the colonial period…But take a look at a high school textbook in this country (U.S.) about the Korean War some time…and it all starts on June 25 and it’s all [North Korea’s] fault and we didn’t do anything except defend the Republic of Korea,” he pointed out.

Perhaps no U.S. historian has done as much as professor Cumings to focus attention on the Korean War and reexamine the U.S. role in its origins. But he also expressed concern for the need for reconciliation and reunification today. “Kim Dae Jung’s idea of reconciliation before reunification is the right one,” he said. That idea made possible a thorough re-examination of the Korean War in South Korea over the past decade enabling “people to see that this war did not have one evil author but multiple authors that all share responsibility for that war,” he explained.

“If Americans become more self aware, if they become educated in both the great things about [the U.S.] and the things that this country has done that demand unearthing, disinterring and considering, then we can begin the process of reconciliation with both Koreas,” he continued.

But reconciliation requires more than awareness, Cumings was quick to point out. He believes that there must also be a change in U.S. military policy. “I’m more interested in my government getting out of the military situation it’s been in now for more than 60 years, getting 30,000 troops out. Our 30,000 troops have been in there since 1945, not always in that number, but until they’re out really there can be no approaching a fair and equal, open, equitable relationship between the U.S. and either Korea,” he stressed.

II. U.S. Policy Approaches to a Rapidly Changing Korea

Gi-Wook Shin: The D.P.R.K. will be a key policy issue for the new U.S. administration, but “today South Koreans are deeply divided in their views towards North Korea and the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance, presenting a challenge for a new U.S. administration,” Professor Gi-Wook Shin began. The origins of the division and its implications for U.S. policy formed the subject of Shin’s talk.

The “Sunshine policy” of Kim Dae Jung that was continued by Roh Moo Hyun did much to cause a shift in thinking about North Korea. “Basically North Korea is not anymore an enemy but can be a partner, and also they can be good partner in reconciliation on Korean issues. At the same time we know that it produced a very strong reaction from [South] Korean conservatives,” he explained. “So one outcome is a much divided [South] Korea, along the ideological lines,” he observed.

After a decade of liberal rule first under Kim Dae Jung and then under Roh Moo Hyun, South Korea elected the more conservative Lee Myung Bak as its president last year. Bak “campaigned as a pragmatist, someone who can save Korean economy…Also he said he would emphasize the alliance with the U.S. and take a tougher line on North Korea,” Shin explained.

Ironically, just as South Korea took a tougher line on North Korea, the U.S. changed its policy and engaged in bilateral talks with North Korea. “So right now if you go to South Korea and talk to the Korean conservatives, they’re not happy with current U.S. policy towards the D.P.R.K…Now there is a growing sense among them that South Korea is being left out,” he said. This is problematic because in his view, “close collaboration between allies is very crucial to achieving good policy towards the D.P.R.K.”

In its first year of rule the Lee administration is already facing many challenges to its policies on both economic and political fronts. “So the U.S. could be caught between politically weakened pro-U.S. conservative government and defiant progressive forces that may take on anti-American stance. That is not an unlikely scenario in the coming years,” Shin warned.

In conclusion Shin stressed that the U.S. must pursue diplomacy with North Korea, in cooperation with its ally, South Korea, and that the U.S. must also “signal to South Korea that inter-Korea reconciliation is important and also beneficial to resolving the North Korean issue…So both countries, the U.S. and South Korea, cannot simply waste another 4 years in dealing with D.P.R.K. nuclear issues.”

John Feffer: More than one speaker at the conference made reference to the superficial, stereotyped, understanding of North Korea that prevails in the U.S. Challenging these stereotypes, John Feffer, policy analyst and author of North Korea/South Korea: U.S. Policy and the Korean Peninsula, discussed in detail many of the dynamic bottom-up changes and top-down reforms that have been taking place in North Korea over the past decade. “Because of these changes I think that U.S. foreign policy should change,” he argued.

Starting with changes taking place on the ground, Feffer explained that, “the bottom-up changes that have been taking place in North Korea economically speaking are quite dramatic. Markets have become a dominant feature in North Korean society. There are two to four markets in every city in the country. There are 19 markets in Pyongyang. The biggest market, Tong Il Market in Pyongyang, attracts 10,000 to 15,000 people a day. This has become a central component of everyday life.”

In response to the thesis that the North Korean government is opposed to these markets, Feffer observed that the government acknowledges their importance and seeks to control them via taxation and staffing, rather than suppress them. These restrictions “are not fundamentally changing the character of these markets today. In some sense you could say that the toothpaste is out of the toothpaste tube. We’re not going to see any reversal, a complete reversal of this bottom up transformation,” he predicts.

In reference to the 2002 economic financial reforms instituted by the government, Feffer noted that, “it’s not just bottom up transformations economically speaking…it is also top down.” Contrary to its stereotype as a dogmatic, unchanging Stalinist regime, Feffer observed that, “the North Korean government appears today to have no fundamental ideologically opposition to markets or capitalism. They’ve renamed it. Of course, it’s called ‘real gain socialism’.”

Alongside economic changes, Feffer pointed out that North Korea is also undergoing many other changes. The social hierarchy is being transformed by the influence of money; there is a freer flow of information in the society, and politically North Korea is on the verge of a tremendous generational transition. But U.S. policy makers, whether they fall in to the regime change camp or the engagement camp, both “ignore fundamental economic and social changes taking place in North Korea” because of their narrow focus, according to Feffer.

“I would argue that we have to look at economic engagement at the same time we’re looking at nonproliferation. And we should not sequence it—that is, they will get economic engagement only when they give up their nuclear weapons. I think we have to look at the Chinese example and see how economic engagement fundamentally changed the relationship between the U.S. and China along the way rather than at some imaginary end point,” he argued.

In contrast to the skepticism in the U.S. that North Korea is capable of market driven reform, Feffer also considered the possibility that capitalist development could be harmful. “Is economic reform and engagement a poison apple?” he asked. “In other words, are we giving North Korea an apple of capitalism that will then turn out to be poisonous in the sense that it leads to the collapse of the current system? That’s a possibility. But we have to accept that the North Korean government itself is accepting this poison apple. It wants this apple. It wants to join the IMF. It wants foreign investment. It believes it has an antidote to the poison and that antidote is, I think, is nationalism. It believes that the nationalism of the people will hold the society together and continue to maintain a certain political order,” Feffer said.

In conclusion Feffer asserted that real change is taking place in North Korea and that it should be encouraged. “[North Korea] has this social change going on. And it’s on the verge of what I think is a profound generational political change with the rise of the technocratic elite. All of that can be encouraged with economic engagement.”

Philip Yun: Philip Yun, an unwavering advocate of diplomatic engagement with North Korea, served as a senior advisor to Assistant Secretaries of State Winston Lord and Stanley Roth during the Clinton administration. He was intimately involved in negotiations with North Korea over the implementation of the Agreed Framework and he accompanied Madeline Albright on her visit in Pyongyang in 2000. He took the audience on an engaging tour of the events and lessons learned in negotiations with North Korea during the Clinton years to the present, and he concluded by sharing his insights on why it has been so difficult for the U.S. to engage North Korea.

“I think that being hard on North Korea is a political freebie, particularly for opinion makers and people in Congress. There’s no downside politically and the problem is that no one wants to be seen as an advocate for North Korea,” he explained. “There’s also a tendency and I think Bruce [Cumings] alluded to this, the tendency to see North Korea as one wishes vs. what it actually is…there’s a tendency for Americans in general and for people who don’t have time to deal with North Korea to fall back on stereotypes because it’s easier and because it’s more comfortable,” he continued.

Failure to understand North Korea beyond its stereotypes has also led to unrealistic expectations in Washington about how North Korea should act. There is “this desire to hold North Korea to a standard that no one can really expect it to hold. They say North Korea should act like everybody else, and they get frustrated when they don’t act like everybody else,” Yun pointed out.

Recalling his experiences in Washington, Yun told the participants that he remembers “talking with someone at the Defense Department saying why don’t [the North Koreans] act like normal people? Or deal with each other like you’re supposed to deal with? And I just said sure that’d be great but you know that North Korea is going to act a certain way you just have to deal with it, don’t try to wish it would be another way because it’s not.”

Finally, Yun suggested that there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the Agreed Framework of 1994. “I think there’s a disconnect…the Agreed Framework was from the U.S. perspective a non-proliferation agreement. From the North Korean perspective it was a relationship agreement, so there’s a disconnect here.” The reason for this, according to Yun, is that “U.S. policymakers have no understanding how threatened North Korea feels from the U.S. and North Korea on the other hand has no understanding how threatened the U.S. feels from North Korea, because from the North Korean perspective, ‘we’re a small country 3000 miles away. Our economy is breaking down. Why are you afraid of us?’ So they can’t understand that either.”

Yun is one of a handful of Korean Americans who have ever been directly involved with U.S. policy toward North Korea, and in closing he called upon Korean Americans to urge Washington to frame its Korea policies with compassion. “There’s a tendency in Washington to think about North Korea as an abstract problem,” he said. But “many of us have relatives in Korea, and it’s not an abstract problem for us. It’s real people and so that is why it is important that we make sure that our policymakers understand the humanity involved in what it is that we do and the implications of the decisions that are made,” he concluded.

III. Unification and Its Challenges

Karin Lee: “Actually the first step of reconciliation is improving the human security on both sides of the DMZ and without it I don’t think we can get to the next step of reunification,” began Karin Lee, Executive Director of the National Committee on North Korea.

Mutual distrust between the U.S. and D.P.R.K. stemming from the Korea War has permeated the provision of food aid to the latter. In the Clinton administration and until recently in the Bush administration, food aid was used as a carrot to achieve U.S. goals, while a distrustful D.P.R.K. prohibited the level of monitoring of food aid delivery customary under normal circumstances. Recent developments, however, indicate that U.S. food aid has become decoupled from security issues, according to Lee.

“If the food aid and the security were as closely linked as they’d been in the Clinton administration, then we would’ve seen a cessation of the food aid [after the breakdown of the denuclearization process in October 2008] but we haven’t seen it. It’s been very quietly, we haven’t seen it suspended, it’s very quietly gone forward,” she observed.

This is a welcome development said Lee because, “if you’re not going to give food aid, you’re going to give energy assistance. If you’re not going to give food aid, you’re going to give terrorism list removal, you’re going to remove [North Korea] from the ‘Trading with the Enemy Act,’ and meanwhile, you guarantee a consistent source of nutrition.”

While optimistic, Lee cautioned that it will take political will on both sides for North Korea to receive the substantial forms of aid it will need to get back on its feet. “You need the political will on both sides for the kind of technical assistance to take place that…the D.P.R.K. is able to bring home and apply to their farming and medical systems…And finally we’re going to need incredible political will for the development assistance to take place,” she concluded.

Jae-Jung Suh: The destruction reigned upon Korea by conventional weapons during the Korean War was horrific. But we were reminded by Professor Jae Jung Suh that a war in Korea today could very well go nuclear given the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive first strike involving nuclear weapons and North Korea’s successful pursuit of a nuclear deterrent. Arms control in the region must now address this added danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons. To achieve a nuclear free zone in Northeast Asia Professor Suh described proposed three steps.

“First in order for non-proliferation regime on the Korean peninsula to be effective and robust a multilateral framework is needed that ensures a reciprocal nuclear security exchange. This could take the form of a Korea peninsula de-nuclearization treaty where both North and South Korea commit themselves not to engage in nuclear weapons production or related research and the U.S., China, Russia, and Japan pledge that the Korean peninsula be free of the use or the threat of the use of nuclear weapon.”

“Two, the nuclear security exchange needs to be complimented by a mechanism that reduces the conventional military threat fought on both sides of the demilitarized zone. This includes ending the Korean War, which is only suspended by the armistice agreement. One possible way to do it seems to lie in the set of simultaneous peace pacts between the parties of the Korean War that would normalize the relationships.”

Lastly, “a Korea peace process must be embedded in a region-wide security institution for northeast Asia…For example, the non-nuclear declaration signed by the two Koreas and endorsed by the four surrounding powers can serve as basis for building regional nuclear weapons free zone that includes not only the Korean peninsula but also Japan.”

“Korea’s peace and unification must be built upon and built with the three components of nuclear weapons free zone, peace treaty, and organizational security and cooperation in East Asia,” Suh concluded.

Martin Hart-Landsberg: The division of Korea resulted in two different paths of economic development on the peninsula. In the west we are more likely to hear of the economic difficulties and need for economic reform in North Korea. But Professor Martin Hart-Landsberg presented a cogent analysis of the up and downs of the South Korean economy in the past decade, and its present weaknesses including the weakening of domestic demand, overdependence on exports and foreign investments, and “an increasing disconnect between the country’s growth and the satisfaction of popular needs.”

“Poverty rates have gone from 9% in 1996 to 20% in 2006. The middle class who according to Korean government figures was 56% of all households in 1996 has gone to 44%. Inequality has hit record levels no matter how you look at it whether it’s spending by the top 20 to bottom 20 or Gini coefficients,” according to Landsberg.

Moreover, “the percentage of workers with regular labor market status has fallen from 58% before the crisis to 46% now in 2007, and these irregular workers only get paid on average of 53% of what regular workers get paid. And this outcome is the logical consequence of the Korean government and business efforts to boost corporate profitability attract investment and expand export competitiveness,” Landsberg explained.

“Now there’s no doubt that people in the north need a new and different system but it’s also important for us to keep in mind that the majority of working people in South Korea are also in need of and want significant transformation of their own system,” Landsberg believes. In connection with this, “what must be acknowledged is that reunification that merely strengthens existing South Korean [economic] structures is not desirable for working people in the south as well as in the north. Therefore what must be developed is a strategy capable of clarifying the nature of the desired changes and advancing a process of reunification with the potential for realizing them,” Landsberg stressed.

A key element in the development of this strategy is dialog between labor and civic organizations on both sides of the DMZ. Landsberg argues that there are a number of things that we can do in the U.S. to facilitate this process. “One, we need to educate Americans about the destructive nature of [South Korea’s] National Security Law and pressure the U.S. government to demand the South Korean government end its use. We need to work to promote the normalization of relations between the U.S. and North Korea which will help to create an atmosphere conducive to more productive Korean cross-border talks. And finally we need to promote an understanding in this country that people in the south and in the north will likely want to create a new political economy that will be significantly different than what currently exists in the north and the south and that it is their right to do so.”

IV. Prospects for Peace — Selig Harrison

Journalist and author of Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement, Selig Harrison is perhaps the foremost authority in the U.S. on North Korea, having unparalleled access to government sources there since 1972 when he became one of the first western journalists to interview the late President Kim Il Sung. He shared his hopes for progress in U.S.-North Korea relations and also discussed the bearing of the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance on the prospects for Korean reunification.

In Pyongyang’s view the defusing of hostilities between the U.S. and North Korea is clearly desirable, according to Harrison. “Any visitor [to Pyongyang] comes away with the impression that there’s an economic dynamic that makes normalization with the U.S. at a minimum, with Japan, at a maximum, absolutely essential. Denuclearization, the leadership recognizes, is necessary for that,” he related.

“The second motive is that North Korea wants normalization achieved through denuclearization to offset China. It’s been very painful from what I’ve heard on my last visit [to Pyongyang] in 2006 for North Korea to have had to become so economically dependent on China in recent years, and it’s extremely sad to see the new administration in Seoul moving ahead in policies to turn North Korea over to China,” Harrison said.

Moreover North Korea needs to normalize relations with the U.S. because it “desires to be stronger economically before getting into serious stages of reunification, so that the north will be in a better bargaining position vis-à-vis the south and will not get absorbed,” he explained.

Harrison is therefore optimistic that the U.S. and North Korea can resolve their differences. “There are lots of factors that make North Korea want to denuclearize if it can get in return the normalization it needs for economic reasons, primarily, and if it can get relief from the threats it feels it faces militarily through normalization,” he summarized.

But the thrust of Harrison’s talk dealt with the impact of the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance on progress, or lack thereof, towards unification; the importance of arms control; and what the U.S. role in supporting unification should be. He noted that, “the [military] subsidy provided by the U.S. presence enables South Koreans to postpone hard choices concerning how fast and how far to move toward reunification…U.S. presence enables the south to minimize the sacrifices that would otherwise be necessary to maintain its existing high levels of defense spending. By the same token the withdrawal of U.S. forces would force Seoul to decide whether it should seek the same level of security now provided by the U.S. presence by upgrading defense expenditures or whether instead the goal of accommodation and reunification with the north would be better served by negotiating a mutual reduction of forces with the north.”

In contrast, Harrison learned from his meetings with Kim Il Sung that a reduction in military forces is regarded as an economic imperative for North Korea. “[Kim Il Sung] said we are being smothered by military expenditures and he made an appeal to the U.S. to take a new approach toward North Korea. And he said look we see you, this was 1972, we see you talking about détente with the Russians and the Chinese, where is that going to leave us? And so we need to reduce our defense expenditures or we won’t be able to survive, and we need your help, in order to do that through arms control. He mentioned it again in 1994.”

As such, and for many other reasons, the motivation for arms control is deeply embedded in North Korea, Harrison explained. Military reductions as envisioned in the North/South1992 agreements on arms control are therefore attainable if South Korea has the will to make it happen, he believes. For its part the U.S. should “disengage its forces gradually from the Korean civil war, over a period not longer than five to seven years, whether or not this can be done as part of an arms control process.” To complement the disengagement process, Harrison urged that “the U.S. should pursue parallel neutralization agreements with China, Russia and Japan barring the introduction of foreign military influences into the peninsula.”

“The stage would then be cleared with the initiative left to Seoul and Pyongyang. Washington would have its hopes and its advice but would recede into an unaccustomed posture of detachment, ready to let the two actors make their own mistakes. In the final analysis such a policy would be a vote of confidence in Korean nationalism and in the potential of a unified Korea as a buffer state. It would be a policy giving importance to Korea and Koreans in their own right at last rather than as pawns in a never ending game of great power rivalries,” he concluded.

Closing Remarks — Hye Jung Park

Korean American filmmaker and peace and reunification activist Hye Jung Park, closed the conference. She noted that, “when we established the Korea Policy Institute, one of our goals was to create a space to engage progressive scholars, policy experts, and community advocates, through forums like this, as well as through other means of public conversation. In these spaces, we hope to bring into conversation with one another many new ‘theories of wisdom,’ to unveil many ‘theories of conscience and heart,’ and to synthesize these in our quest for a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula.”

“With these insights in mind and guiding our hearts we will go among the people of the U.S. and Korea. We will be on the streets, on our airwaves, at the White House, in the halls of Congress, and we will be heard. We will press for changes in U.S. foreign policies that have been entrenched in blind Cold War practices,” she pledged.

Ms. Park concluded that “for us, there is a long way to go and there are many tasks and challenges. We walk through a land of suffering, but we are walking on the road toward peace and reunification. And, like the song of Arirang, our journey with hope and tears is beautiful.”


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