A thawing is occurring in Asia, especially on the Korean peninsula, melting away over a half century of hardened enmity between historic enemies. North and South Korea have revived the reconciliation process that was stalled in 2007, and Japan has promised the region that it will address its colonial past.
Rarely are the stars so aligned for genuine peace in Northeast Asia. President Obama should take advantage of this historic warming by sending special envoy Stephen Bosworth to North Korea to finally resolve the outstanding Korean War.
Last week, 550 South Koreans made the long-awaited journey across the heavily armed border to Mt. Kumgang in North Korea where they finally met their children, parents, siblings, and extended relatives. Most have waited for this day since 1950 and the outbreak of the Korean War. After a three-year stalemate, that war ended in an armistice, not a permanent peace treaty. As a result, a militarized border, guarded by 1.7 million Korean and U.S. troops, bisects the peninsula and keeps the Korean people apart.
The good news is that family reunifications are part of a broader engagement between North and South Korea. Following Bill Clinton’s trip to Pyongyang, North Korea released five detained South Koreans – a Hyundai worker and four fishermen. Pyongyang then sent a high-level delegation to pay respects to the late South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and author of the Sunshine Policy. South Korean companies are back in business in Kaesong, the industrial park built in North Korea with South Korean capital, where they have even settled a wage dispute. Prime Ministers from North and South Korea have begun bilateral talks. South Korean President Lee Myung Bak recently offered a “grand bargain” of aid and security guarantees in exchange for North Korea scrapping its nuclear weapons (although Pyongyang has not warmed to the offer). Last week, North Korea announced changes to its constitution, scrapping “communism” and incorporating “human rights,” yet another signal that the country seeks global acceptance.
The conciliatory spirit isn’t just flowing between the two Koreas. Japan’s newly elected Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama promised that his Democratic Party “has courage enough to look straight into the face of history” and address its colonial past. Already Hatoyama has kept his promise by not following the example of his predecessor and visiting the Yasakuni Shrine, a monument that honors war criminals and that both Korea and China consider an affront. And this past weekend, Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao visited with Kim Jong-Il to revive ties that had frayed earlier this year following North Korea’s second nuclear test.
In Washington’s Court
The remaining conflict is between the United States and North Korea, and there are signs of rapprochement. North Korea has extended invitations to Ambassador Bosworth and Senator John Kerry. Although it took Bill Clinton’s trip to Pyongyang, North Korea released without condition the two American journalists it held for several months. The jury is still out on the ultimate reasons for and purposes of North Korea’s smile offensive. But Pyongyang appears genuinely interested in talking with Washington.
Last week, meanwhile, Stephen Bosworth said, “There is no military solution. Containment does not give long-term results. Negotiations are the way forward,” signaling a significant shift in the Obama policy towards North Korea. But there is still some hesitation in Washington. The Obama administration believes that North Korea deliberately placed roadblocks to engagement by launching a missile in April and testing a second nuclear device in May. In other words, in exchange for President Obama’s unclenched fist, North Korea gave Washington the finger. Also, North Korea has broken the rules of the global game – such as violating the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty – and must be punished.
But, in fact, North Korea’s belligerence was in reaction to Obama’s continuation of the Bush policy: denuclearization before talks. In 2008, the Bush administration insisted that North Korea, after already completing two stages of denuclearization, had agreed verbally to sampling as part of verification. But North Korea disagreed, arguing that sampling amounted to “an act of infringing upon sovereignty, little short of seeking a house-search.” The Obama administration, unfortunately, picked up where the Bush administration left off. On her first overseas trip to Asia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered improved relations “if North Korea is genuinely prepared to completely and verifiably eliminate their nuclear weapons program.” In other words, Washington would talk with Pyongyang only after the latter eliminated its nuclear program. The problem is that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are the symptom, not the root cause of the conflict. Yet many in Washington believe that denuclearization must be managed before security guarantees can be addressed.
Diplomatic negotiations are a means to settle differences. Engaging North Korea through direct negotiations doesn’t mean the Obama administration is legitimizing the North Korean leader. Richard Nixon negotiated with China and Ronald Reagan talked with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and those societies have changed quite a bit since then. President Obama should uphold his commitment to negotiate, and doing so with North Korea means opening up North Korea and the door to peaceful reunification. Given its leadership in the division of the Korean peninsula and in the Korean War, the United States has a moral obligation to engage North Korea. Not doing so is a dangerous repeat of the same mistakes of the past two administrations, which led, eventually, to a nuclear North Korea.
Amid the changing political dynamics in Northeast Asia landscape, one thing remains constant: the Korean peoples’ desire for peace and reunification. In South Korea, a 2005 survey by the Korea Institute for National Unification found that 84% of the population said reunification is an urgent task for the nation. Even a new report by a South Korean economist for Goldman Sachs forecasts that a unified Korea, despite the costs of reunification, could surpass the economies of Japan and Germany’s economy in 30 to 40 years. Though it is difficult to ascertain the feelings of North Korean people, the ones I met on a trip to the country last year were unanimous in their pleas for reunification.
Today, the world is watching the emotional reunions of elderly Koreans who have waited their entire lives for this moment. But only a fraction will have this opportunity. Over 85,000 South Koreans have registered for the lottery to be reunited with their families, and for most, time is running out.
The time is now to engage North Korea diplomatically and finally end the Korean War with a permanent peace treaty. By supporting the winds of peace and reconciliation blowing across the DMZ, President Obama will have one less foreign policy challenge and move one step closer towards his vision of a nuclear free world. By engaging North Korea, President Obama can help heal the wounds that millions of people – including U.S. vets – have carried for 60 years.
Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst Christine Ahn is a fellow with the Korea Policy Institute and a member of the National Campaign to End the Korean War.