On New Year’s Eve, one week after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned that US forces were capable of “winning decisively” if North Korea’s nuclear weapons program provoked a war, tens of thousands of South Koreans poured into the streets of Seoul to condemn the acquittals by a US military tribunal of two US soldiers who accidentally killed two schoolgirls last June. Many in the crowd also called for the withdrawal of the 37,000 US troops stationed in South Korea. A day earlier, President Kim Dae Jung, whose “sunshine policy” has led to an unprecedented degree of cooperation across the demilitarized zone, criticized the Bush Administration for seeking to end the standoff with North Korea through a program of economic intimidation called “tailored containment.” “Pressure and isolation have never been successful with Communist countries,” said Kim. Roh Moo Hyun, the former human rights lawyer who was elected president on December 19 on a platform demanding a more equal relationship with the United States, strongly endorsed Kim’s stand. On January 7, the United States finally buckled to the pressure and offered to talk directly to Pyongyang about “its international obligations” to remain nuclear-free.
The protests, and Roh’s warnings against unilateral US action, are the latest signs of a growing disconnect between South Korea and the United States. Anti-American sentiment has been rising steadily in South Korea since the 1980s over US support for a succession of military dictators and its refusal to embrace the yearning for national unification that peaked in 2000, when Kim traveled to Pyongyang for the first meeting between the presidents of North and South Korea. But it has risen significantly since Bush came to office. Many Koreans believe that Bush’s curt dismissal of Kim’s sunshine policy, his inclusion of Pyongyang in his “axis of evil” and his doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against potential enemies have sent an unmistakable message that the United States has no interest in a negotiated peace in Korea. Bush’s public comments that he “loathes” Kim Jong Il and would like to see his government “topple” haven’t helped either. South Koreans now go out of their way to tell foreign reporters that they view America as more dangerous than the police state to their north, and even defend North Korea’s attempts to build nuclear weapons. “It can be said that there exists on the Korean Peninsula at present only confrontation between the Koreans in the North and the South and the United States,” Pyongyang said in a New Year’s broadcast that is closer to the truth than many Americans realize.
The standoff began in October, during the first high-level meeting between the Bush Administration and North Korea. After Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly presented US evidence of a uranium-enrichment program, the North Koreans shocked Kelly by owning up to it. US officials quickly declared that the 1994 Agreed Framework–under which North Korea froze its plutonium-based reactor at Yongbyon in exchange for promises of a pair of light-water reactors and US diplomatic and economic relations–was dead. But US officials left out a critical piece of information about the confrontation in Pyongyang. According to most accounts, the North Koreans told Kelly they were willing to end their effort to enrich uranium, abide by existing safeguards on plutonium-based weapons and accept new inspections in return for a US pledge not to launch a pre-emptive attack, sign a peace agreement and normalize relations. Bush refused, saying the North must stop its program first; when that didn’t happen, he cut off shipments of fuel oil promised under the 1994 agreement. Within weeks, Kim had restarted Yongbyon and kicked out UN weapons inspectors, who have been monitoring the reactor since 1994. “If the United States legally assures us of security by concluding a nonaggression treaty, the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula will be settled,” Pyongyang’s ambassador to China reiterated January 3.
That’s essentially the trade-off that Seoul’s new leader has embraced. But US statements that it “will not provide quid pro quos” could complicate a settlement. Since taking office, the Administration has been deeply split about North Korea and contemptuous of the Clinton Administration’s attempts to defuse tensions (they included negotiations that would have ended North Korea’s production of ballistic missiles, such as the ones it shipped to Yemen last month). Even when Bush has embraced the concept of negotiations, he has made unilateral demands that killed hopes of movement. When Secretary of State Colin Powell offered to begin open-ended talks last June, the White House demanded upfront a pullback of North Korean forces from the DMZ and new weapons inspections. The United States “treated North Korea like a defendant at the bar rather than a protagonist in a negotiation,” says Selig Harrison, a Korea analyst at the Center for International Policy who has visited Pyongyang seven times. Powell’s recent attempts to place the onus for a settlement on China and Russia, who genuinely seek a nonnuclear Korea, have ignored equally strong pleas from Presidents Jiang Zemin and Vladimir Putin for US engagement with Pyongyang and an end to US threats and sanctions.
Korea watchers have been warning for years that the US failure to meet its 1994 commitments has buttressed hard-liners in Pyongyang who believe nuclear deterrence is their only hope for survival. Soon after the framework was signed, Republicans took over the House of Representatives and began attacking Clinton’s agreement as a sellout. As a result, Clinton delayed key elements of the pact–including construction of the reactors at the heart of the agreement–until the North-South summit in 2000 gave him political cover to proceed. Other provisions, such as the US promise to lift economic sanctions, were never implemented. Pakistan offered North Korea the technology for uranium enrichment sometime around 1999. With the framework unwinding and North Korea’s security still in question, Harrison believes that Pyongyang took the offer as “a good hedging strategy.”
Can the situation in Korea be resolved? By directly addressing North Korea’s concerns about its survival, the Bush Administration has an opportunity to negotiate a new relationship with both Koreas that could finally transform the armistice that ended the Korean War fifty years ago into a lasting peace. The first step would be a joint declaration of nonaggression combined with a US pledge not to obstruct North Korea’s economic development; in return, the North would agree to a verifiable halt to its nuclear program and welcome back the UN inspectors. Next would come orchestrated steps, such as mutual pullbacks from the DMZ, designed to create the peace that will allow both Koreas to move ahead on their long-delayed unification.
A growing number of Americans are pushing for a policy change. Harrison’s book Korean Endgame lays out a comprehensive path for a settlement that would include US support for economic projects such as a railroad linking Korea with Europe and a pipeline connecting the oilfields on Russia’s Pacific Coast to the two Koreas. Donald Gregg, the former national security adviser to George H.W. Bush, has courageously spoken out in favor of US engagement and visited Pyongyang several times to meet with senior officials. Nongovernmental organizations like the American Friends Service Committee and Nautilus Institute in Berkeley have forged institutional relationships in North Korea that could lay the foundation for future ties. It’s unlikely Bush would have shifted ground without pressure from key senators, including Carl Levin, Richard Lugar and Joseph Biden.
Moving away from fifty years of confrontation means accepting North Korea as a legitimate nation, rejecting accusations that negotiations with Kim Jong Il are tantamount to appeasement and rethinking the idea that US troops must remain in Korea forever. It also means jettisoning the cold war thinking that, in many American minds, views South Koreans as junior partners (“It’s like teaching a child how to ride a bike,” a Pentagon official said about US relations with Seoul) and sees North Koreans as an inherently nasty and brutish people incapable of keeping agreements or joining the global community.
But building a constituency for peace in Korea requires pressure and action from a left that, since the end of the Vietnam War, has largely ceded Asia policy to conservative Republicans and the business community. For much of the past twenty years, as South Korea became a democracy and the collapse of the Soviet Union melted a half-century of regional animosity, many progressives have viewed East Asia as an economic competitor rather than a region whose complex political and economic problems are rooted in the cold war. Some critics of corporate globalization have joined with the far right in demonizing China, which is playing a key role in building peace in Korea and, like North Korea, is surrounded by US military bases. If progressives are to help Korea meet its goal of peaceful unification, they need to recognize the realities of contemporary Asia, reach out to the South Koreans and Okinawans who are sick of losing their daughters and their environment to US bases, and learn from their Asian counterparts about living with people they once loathed. If the Koreans can do it, so can we.