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Roundtable on U.S.-North Korea Relations and the Obama Administration

Minjog 21, a leading progressive news journal based in South Korea, sponsored a roundtable interview with Thomas Kim, Executive Director of the Korea Policy Institute (KPI), KPI Fellow Christine Ahn, and long-time Korean American scholar-activist Professor Ramsay Liem. The interview was published (in Korean) in Minjog 21’s December issue.

Minjog 21: What should we expect from the new administration on Korean peninsular issues within the context of America’s overall approach to Northeast Asia? How important will Korea be?

Christine Ahn: According to remarks made by some of our panelists during the [October 10, 2008 Berkeley] conference, including Phil Yun and Karin Lee, North Korea as a U.S. foreign policy priority can range anywhere from being number eight to 40. Although it’s really difficult to gauge how important the Korean peninsula will be, it does look like President-elect Obama wants to continue working within the six-party talks framework and is looking to China to apply pressure, not just on North Korea but on Iran as well. One promising note is that Obama said, “As president, I will work from the very beginning of my term in office to secure the American people and our interests in this vital region. We must work with diligence and determination with our friends and allies to end this dangerous threat and to secure a lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.”

Ramsay Liem: I have two comments. To gauge what he is going to do in the short run, we have to see how he handles China. However he develops his policy towards China is going to dictate a lot of what he does in the rest of East Asia including Korea. The other is that he has talked a lot about the Korea FTA and actually sounds tougher on free trade with Korea than the Bush administration. His first priority is going to be the U.S. domestic economy and he will push hard to open Korean and also Chinese markets. He has specifically targeted the Korean auto market. Obama has also said the Bush administration overlooked East Asia and he intends to make it a top priority along with Iraq and Iran. Again, I believe his economic and strategic policy toward Korea will be strongly influenced by his assessment of China as a potential partner but more likely, major competitor. To a lesser extent, this also applies to India.

Thomas Kim: There is a general sense in the American foreign policy community that during the Bush Administration the U.S. did not pay sufficient attention to their relationship with various Pacific Rim governments, and that the U.S. lost influence in the region. It’s reasonable to assume that the Obama Administration wants to reassert American hegemony. The number one concern is the relationship with China. Of course, U.S. interests in the Pacific Rim since World War II have centered on developing Japan as a U.S. ally. The issues that most matter to Korea are unlikely to be the top priorities for the Obama Administration. That does not mean, however, that the U.S. won’t pay more attention to Northeast Asia more generally and Korea more specifically. On the FTA, while Obama came out a long time ago against the Korus FTA on the basis that it didn’t sufficiently open up South Korea’s auto markets, should Obama eventually decide to push passage of the FTA, it will be easier for him as a Democratic President facing a Democratic Congress than it would have been for McCain. If the South Korean government is willing to bend yet again and rewrite the terms of the FTA on autos, then the FTA will have a good chance of getting through the U.S. Congress.

M21: Will Obama inherit the Bush administration’s North Korea policy? What will be the similarities and the differences?

Liem: He is going to follow along the general lines of what the Bush administration has done for the past two years. If anything, he is even more likely than Bush to engage North Korea directly, bilaterally. Not only has he committed himself publicly to a path of negotiation with “enemies,” he has also stated his willingness in principle to send a high level representative of his administration to the DPRK. At the same time, he has voiced the standard line on North Korea’s denuclearization emphasizing the need for full and transparent disclosure and guarantees that North Korea will not engage in nuclear proliferation.

Kim: Obama’s North Korea team is less likely than Bush’s team to work under the delusion that North Korea will collapse. Obama’s team will likely have several Clinton Administration officials who went through U.S.-North Korea negotiations from 1998-2000, and most of them walked away believing that the North Koreans were genuine in their desire to have peace with the U.S. So there’s a real opening here, and I expect that Obama will follow through on his campaign promise and engage in direct and meaningful negotiations with the North Korean government, but my concern is that given the lesser priority that North Korea holds for America, that the Obama Administration will delay their efforts and a window of opportunity will close.

Ahn: Whenever McCain criticized Obama for his willingness to meet with enemies Obama has snapped right back that North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs “only expanded while we refused to talk.” I think we can pretty much count on a pretty radical departure from Bush in terms of talk versus pre-emptive strike, but at the same time I think Obama will maintain a stance on aggressive diplomacy. Let’s not forget that Joe Biden will also be very instrumental in shaping Obama’s policies as the Vice-President. As the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has taken a conciliatory approach to working with Republicans on Korea security issues.

Liem: There is some talk that Bill Richardson might become Obama’s Secretary of State. Of course this is only talk but if he does choose someone like Richardson, the prospects for engagement with the DPRK will be more favorable.

M21: It seems that Obama wants to have direct engagement between the U.S. and North Korea. What is the prospect for the 6 party talks in the future?

Ahn: I just returned from Korea where I participated in a conference where scholars and peace activists from the U.S., South Korea, Japan and China met to discuss how civil society from the six countries could work together to pressure our governments to freeze military spending. Sentiments, especially from the Chinese scholars, were pretty bleak that the talks would continue. People felt like the six party talk were starting to unravel and that there was no political will to reinstate the talks. I’m not entirely sure how taking North Korea off of the terrorist list derails the process, but it certainly puts direct talks between North Korea and the United States on track.

Liem: South Korea is pretty upset that the Bush administration has sidestepped them in the latest round of negotiations that led to the recent delisting of North Korea.

Ahn: As is Japan.

Liem: But you know Japan, I don’t think Obama will cave in to their demands about purported abductees as a precondition for moving forward with the DPRK. Several years ago Japan’s chief negotiator at the 6-way talks, Kenichiro Sase, said publicly that unless there is regime change in North Korea, there is no point in even having talks with them. This is a non-starter. Unless Japan has softened its stance radically, there is no reason to think that Obama will allow Japan to stall the negotiations.

Ahn: When I was in Korea, Keiko Nakamura of Peace Depot Japan said that they are quite hopeful that the opposition party, the Democratic Party, will take over power from the Liberal Democratic Party. I understand that Prime Minister Taro Aso has postponed the general elections, but it appears that the Japanese people will vote in a more progressive and peace-oriented leadership, which will definitely alter the political wind.

Kim: The early rounds of the six-party talks were worse than useless because the Bush Administration’s goal was specifically to avoid engaging in meaningful diplomacy, and instead sought to develop a coalition for punishment. This is why neoconservatives like John Bolton stated that the 6-party talks failed after the talks started to bear diplomatic fruit—the neoconservatives had failed to accomplish their goal of isolating North Korea. The key to the frequency, tenor and direction of future 6-party talks is the political will of the Obama Administration. Will Obama decide that it wants to eventually transition America into a position as an honest broker on the peninsula? China and Russia both have relations with North and South Korea, but the U.S. still maintains its Cold War hostility toward North Korea even though the U.S. normalized relations with China and Vietnam. If the Obama Administration plays the role of honest broker, then you’ll have Russia, China, and the U.S. swinging their weight within the 6-party talks to establish a regional diplomatic agreement that could undergird the normalization of relations between the U.S. and North Korea. Japan is not going to go along with this unless it’s unavoidable, and the conservative Lee government of South Korea would be similarly unhappy.

M21: Do you think it is possible for Obama to visit Pyongyang and normalize the relationship with North Korea during his tenure as President Clinton tried to do? What are the necessary factors (conditions) to make this happen?

Kim: The major conceptual failure on the U.S. side has been to negotiate with North Korea within a narrow securitization framework. The U.S. pursues denuclearization (and demilitarization) because of its immediate security concerns, but real progress on demilitarization paradoxically hinges on whether or not the U.S. goes beyond their narrow concerns about nuclear weapons and missiles. The U.S. needs to fully recognize that normalization is both possible and profitable for U.S. interests. So long as the U.S. treats negotiations as only about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, it won’t matter how much money or aid the U.S. sends to North Korea—you will not have peace. North Korea will still not have achieved its primary goal—a genuine, strategic relationship with the U.S. A relationship with the U.S. would simultaneously help North Korea maneuver with other countries and balance off the threat of China to North Korea. The relationship with America is one that North Korea believes it needs in order to revive its economy and, paradoxically, to maintain its independence.

Liem: One thing I would add is that Frank Jannuzi, a senior analyst and staff to Joe Biden, understands that to make real progress in negotiations with the DPRK, you have to go to the top. He said this in a debate with East Asia policy advisers to John McCain. In the same breath he said that under the right conditions Obama would send high-level representatives to North Korea and might even consider going himself. The key, of course, is the “right conditions.” It would take great leadership on Obama’s part to go against the grain of more than a half-century of U.S. hostility toward North Korea to convince Congress and the U.S. public that mutually beneficial normalization with North Korea is possible. At the very least, it would require convincing progress toward verifiable denuclearization of North Korea. It could also mean that the Obama administration has decided that Korea is an essential strategic ally to counter China’s rising power. The question then would be whether or not North Korea and for that matter, South Korea as well, are willing to build an alliance on these terms.

Ahn: Obama’s position on North Korea is a very safe one. He has been toeing the line that the goal of U.S. foreign policy with regards to North Korea is the full, permanent and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Even though North Korea has handed over 18,000 pages of documentation to the United States, the U.S. contends that many questions still remain about North Korea’s programs, such as its relationship with Syria. But given how Republicans are portrayed as hawks and Democrats as doves, I’m just not sure if the Democrats will have the courage and spine to fully normalize relations with North Korea. It’s one thing to take North Korea off the terrorist list and another to normalize relations and lift sanctions.

Liem: I agree with Christine in this way. It has to do with the whole priority question. I think Obama is going to face unprecedented pressures at home and that his political honeymoon is going to be very short. A lot of what he might want to do in Korea will depend on how much political capital he can raise and maintain at home.

Ahn: Another piece in this is the simmering arms race in Northeast Asia. The six countries involved in the 6-party talks account for 65% of the world’s military spending. Since 9/11 the U.S. has increased its military spending by 70% and South Korea also has increased its military spending by 70% since the late 1990s. The financial crisis presents an opportunity to cut the bloated military budget.

M21: As you saw during the North Korea’s removal from terrorist list, the resistance and pressure from Japan was immense. What will be the Obama administration’s relationship to Japan should the U.S. proceed with efforts to normalize with North Korea?

Liem: On the one the hand the U.S.-Japan relation is the core of U.S. security, economic, and political interests in Asia. The question is whether or not an Obama administration is willing to give up some of that up by investing more in its relationship with both Koreas and ultimately in developing stronger bilateral ties with China. A key signal will be how the administration and the Pentagon proceed with plans to refocus U.S. military objectives in the south from deterrence (of North Korea) to staging for regional conflicts, e.g. with China. Of course the Korean people will have their own say about the major shift in U.S. strategic interests in Korea.

Kim: Japan has no obvious investment in seeing the U.S. develop normal relations with North Korea, and clearly the hardliners seeking to build Japan’s military would prefer that the U.S. and North Korea maintain a hostile relationship. Japanese hardliners want to continue to expand their military beyond the “peace constitution” imposed by the U.S. after World War II, and are eventually hoping to possess their own nuclear weapons. The desire to remilitarize Japan is one major reason why conservatives continue to use the abductee issue as a blockade for diplomatic engagement. The Obama Administration will be strongly, uniformly opposed to helping Japan develop its nuclear weapon program, so while the U.S.-Japan relationship will continue to be central to U.S. hegemony, his election means that the possibilities for Japanese nuclearization have narrowed.

M21: Since the Lee Myoung Bak administration came to power, talk between North and South Korea has stopped. The South Korean government continues to connect the nuclear issue and bilateral talk. Some experts say that there will be a conflict between South Korea and the U.S. if Obama seeks to directly engage North Korea. What do you think about this? What is your advice to the South Korea government?

Ahn: In South Korea there appears to be some concern that the Lee Administration knows no one in the Obama Administration given how conservative the Lee Administration is. Essentially there is already a political rift between the two governments, and the Lee Administration has to get to work.

From most accounts, the Lee Administration was very upset that the Bush Administration took North Korea off the terrorism list without any substantive consultation or collaboration with them. But I’ve also heard other accounts that given how unpopular Lee already is, there is a sense in the State Department that what Lee says doesn’t really matter anyway, and that he should already be treated as a lame-duck President who doesn’t have the support of his people. On my recent visit, I got the sense that civil society groups are feeling the repression, whether it’s Lee trying to put pressure on corporations to deny funding to progressive pro-democracy groups or the Yonsei professor who was recently jailed for having a pro-socialist website or the military’s ban on “seditious” books that are anti-capitalist, anti-American, or pro-North. On any index measuring democracy and open societies, South Korea would not rank very high under this President Lee.

Liem: The problem is that if Lee maintains the path that he’s on—hard line stance toward the North, failure to stem the tide of domestic economic decline, attacks on labor and progressive civic groups, then I’m not sure that we can have any meaningful advice for his administration. In spite of all the talk of the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance as a historic cornerstone of U.S. interests in East Asia, Lee needs to build a new relationship with the Obama administration. In doing so, he needs to be prepared for an Obama agenda that will pressure Korea to open its markets wider, elevate labor rights and environmental protections, support U.S. led negotiations with North Korea, and accept a realignment of U.S. military forces in the South. Is Lee willing to acquiesce to these pressures to preserve the U.S.-Korea alliance or can he change course and work earnestly to strengthen North-South relations and ultimately Korea’s shared national interests?

Kim: The U.S. and South Korea have always had what might charitably be called a senior/junior partner relationship. The inspiring election of America’s first black President in a historically racist country hasn’t changed the structural dynamics of this relationship. The U.S. is still in a position to heavily influence the direction of South Korean government. This was evident when Nixon went to China, and it would be apparent today if Obama goes to Pyongyang. Just as Park Chung Hee suddenly found it in his interest to reach out to Kim Il Sung, so too should Lee Myong Bak find it in his interest to reach out to Kim Jong-Il. And since it appears that Obama will look to engage diplomatically with North Korea, the South Korean government ought to give serious consideration to reaching out first to North Korea rather than waiting for Obama to do so. Waiting until Obama makes the first move takes the initiative away from the Lee Administration, and it poses the risk that South Korea will appear irrelevant if Obama’s engagement policies start to make serious bilateral progress with North Korea.

On the flip side, one powerful way that the Obama Administration could influence the Lee Administration to engage North Korea would be to decrease the level of U.S. military subsidies to the South Korean military budget with the eventual goal of phasing them out altogether. U.S. military subsidies to South Korea are a major roadblock for reunification as Selig Harrison among others has pointed out. Ending these subsidies would force the South Korean government to take seriously the challenge of how to get to a permanent peace with North Korea because without U.S. subsidies, South Korea could not maintain its military budget without bankrupting the rest of the government. And with the U.S. in a recession, it’s not obvious why American taxpayers should continue to subsidize the South Korean military as they have for over sixty years, especially if you take into account that the North Koreans have been seeking a peaceful, strategic relationship with the U.S. for about twenty of those years. The South Korean military is hardly weak, having benefited from decades of transfers of American military technology as well, and American military subsidies help maintain and expand South Korea’s military-industrial complex.


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