The ICAS Lectures

No. 99-226-IOL

 Security Dilemma In Northeast Asia: 
Bold Action Required For Peace

InSung Oaks Lee

ICAS Winter Symposium
Asia's Challenges Ahead
University of Pennsylvania
February 26, 1999

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

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Biographic Sketch

InSung Oaks Lee

Security Dilemma In Northeast Asia:

Bold Action Required For Peace

InSung Oaks Lee

From the beginning of the 20th Century to the dawn of the new Millennium, Korea has suffered much at the hands of foreigners. At the close of World War II, Korea thought the morning calm had settled over her ravished countryside, only to be thrust once more into war, this time as the political pawn of two major powers. Since the Armistice of 1953, Korea has become an exacerbated political battlefield which prevails to this day with an uncertain future, an uncertainty that was spawned from the scars of a country torn in half by war, a war whose massive destruction to its infrastructure left millions dead, homeless, or separated from their loved ones.

The armistice that ended the fighting lingers in the people's collective memory, while an atmosphere of continuing suspicions and mistrust still hangs as a threatening cloud over the Koreas. One wonders whether conflict will once again ignite to settle the ideological battle, a battle which has ensued over the past 53 years, the resolution of which may largely depend upon the joint efforts of both Koreas in concert with the United States and the neighboring countries of China, Japan, and Russia.

To break the simmering stalemate that exists between the Koreas requires a bold new approach, an approach that will require the U.S. government to completely abandon its old containment/limited engagement strategy and implement an expanded engagement strategy. The rest of the international community will eventually need to play a dynamic role towards creating a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.

If this strategy fails, the U.S. government could revert to the containment policies of the Cold War era, the military confrontation option.

The threat of North Korea resorting to armed conflict if driven to isolation continues to loom ominously over Northeast Asia. South Korea, having an imminent concern in the current state of affairs seems to be making some progress with President Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine" or Engagement Policy, although as the South still remains at odds with the North in many areas, peaceful reconciliation in the near future seems unlikely.

The U.S. may be in the most influential position to settle the war through nonconfrontational means, to prevent armed conflict, and to facilitate a lasting peace, thereby bringing stability to the region. This process requires a bold U.S. commitment to end the war, help resolve North Korea's dire economic problems, and reduce tension through reciprocal transparent actions.

Since military confrontation alone has not achieved a permanent peace, a new infusion of courageous, bold and transparent actions on is required to end the war. The congruous implementation of this harmonious peace process of building trust and confidence may provide ways to advance toward a permanent peace in Northeast Asia while serving U.S. and international interests.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the views of the
Department of Defense or any of its agencies.



INTRODUCTION: During the past 45 years of the Cold War containment policy, efforts of the combined forces of the U.S. and South Korea have provided a credible deterrence to armed hostilities, and have maintained a fragile peace on the Korean Peninsula. If this system has worked so brilliantly in the past, why attempt to change it now? The U.S. strategy of containment of North Korea has prevented a major armed conflict; but, it has not brought about peace and stability to the region. To the rest of the world, Korea stands as a reminder of the Cold War era, but for over 70 million Koreans, the Cold War continues. Today, nearly 46 years since the signing of the Armistice, several million Koreans are still separated from their loved ones, unable to exchange telephone conversations or even a single letter with their family and friends who happen to be on the other side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Korea (patiently, perhaps too patiently) awaits the promise of the 1943 Cairo Communiqu‚--- " Korea shall be free and independent in due course."

Yes, the military capabilities of the opposing forces have been successful in deterring the escalation of war in the past and will most likely continue to do so in the future. Such action will require the continued maintenance of a large deterrent conventional force that will be costly to all parties involved; and even with such a deterrent, confrontation is still possible. Modern weaponry and the violent intensity of modern warfare would bring devastating effects to the Korean Peninsula, much greater than the effects of the Korean War of 1950-1953.

IF IT AIN'T BROKE, DON'T MESS WITH IT: There is a saying in the military, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The truth of the matter is, that the world perceives that the current system of maintaining the fragile armistice does not appear to be "broken." Implicit in this observation is the fore-drawn conclusion that there is then no need to "fix it." The world at large, including the leaders of our own nation, would just as well leave the situation in Korea as it is, and not consider the real threat that lies behind the fa‡ade of this fragile peace, a fragile peace that is maintained through military power, and that has the potential to explode with repercussions which would shake the world. What then is the solution to the problem? I would argue that the leaders of the opposing nations, together with a few regional leaders, particularly the leaders of China, Japan, and Russia hold the solution to the security problem; their bold diplomatic initiatives supported by regional and international organizations are required to fix the problem.

If we are not sensitive and bold in our approach to help resolve the problems on the Korean peninsula, the prevailing famine, causing enormous human suffering coupled with its mired economic situation could lead to a costlier global conflict.

TIME TO SEEK PERMANENT PEACE: Now is the time for the U.S. government to decisively engage the Kim Jong-il government through constructive diplomacy in the furtherance of "reducing tensions and making the transition from Armistice to lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula" as outlined in "The United States Security Strategy for the East Asia-Pacific Region 1998." President Woodrow Wilson stated "To conquer with arms is to make only a temporary conquest; to conquer the world (in this case North Korea) by earning its esteem is to make permanent conquest."

There are several factors why this is the most opportune time. Today there exists a more receptive political atmosphere, the North's dominant economic failure, coupled with its inability to feed her own people due to a famine of historical proportions, may serve as the catalyst needed to urge the North to work more amicably with those pursuing a peaceful solution to the problems of that region. Marlon Brando, an actor once said, "If we are not our brother's keeper, let us at least not be his executioner." As a Judeo-Christian society, it is difficult to ignore the death of millions of North Koreans by starvation with their children growing up in malnutrition.

North Korea's economic dilemma has prompted her to focus on the manufacture and proliferation of military weapons, both for their own security needs as well as to sell for hard currency. Military weapons production is what they do best; and they rely upon arms transactions to earn much-needed foreign currency. The threat of the development of nuclear weaponry and ballistic missiles is used as a leverage to engage America in obtaining diplomatic concessions and badly needed humanitarian assistance. The North's policy of engagement through threat has been very successful, as evidenced by the sizable assistance they have managed to obtain from the U.S., South Korea, Japan and from international organizations.

What means other than these do the North Koreans have to so effectively engage the world and obtain the much-needed resources to maintain a quantitative military superiority and feed their people? Even with outside assistance, their poor economic performance and protracted famine persist and continue to plague the North Korean people and possibly threaten the regime's survival. These dire circumstances may also contribute to the North's resistance to engaging in various confidence building measures, including the Four-Party talks, and in reestablishing a meaningful dialogue with South Korea. Another motive of North Korea may be is to buy time to improve their economic system and to slowly phase the nation and her people into the international community. (There are some indications that North Korea is slowly opening its society to the world [through an increase in tourism, allowing air space for commercial airlines, establishment of "sister affiliation" villages and towns, expanding market economy, the "right to use land and the right to profit", free trade zones, etc.] and increased modernization will speed up the process of its evolution toward openness in society and then eventually with the world.)

Whatever their plans are, the North Korean government needs to pull out of its economic quagmire, but they do not have the know-how nor the resources to do so on their own. There are signs indicative of their desire to adopt the Chinese model of modernization, which would be a very positive step for both Koreas, the region, and the world. (North Korea may have analyzed the China's model of economic modernization leading to political change verses Russia's disastrous model of political liberalization followed by economic crisis).

YOU CAN'T TREAT A LARGE WOUND WITH A BAND-AID: In order for North Korea to pull out of its current poor economic situation, foreign assistance in terms of billions of dollars will be required. The U.S. government, being the author of the great European recovery plan, could again, with the coalition nations, support an economic recovery program, similar to the one offered to the Europeans and the Soviet block nations after World War-II in the form of the Marshall Plan. This would provide an opportunity to tie an economic recovery plan to arms reduction, and elimination of both weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic delivery systems.

The positive effects of an economic partnership with increased trading and business opportunities for the U.S. and both Koreas, heavily outweigh the negative expenditure of maintaining a robust military standoff. This scenario being beneficial to the U.S. government, should prompt the U.S. to pursue a bold initiative to shape and steer a future that will be advantageous not only to both Koreas and the U.S., but to the world community as well.

SIGNS OF COOPERATIVE SPIRIT: Politically, the change of leaders in both North and South Korea provides a unique opportunity for the U.S. government to boldly forge ahead, possibly bringing about a lasting peace to both Koreas. There have been positive energies generated by both the North's Kim Jong-il and the South's Kim Dae-jung. In 1998, Kim Jong-il, for the first time since the Korean conflict, stated that America was not his eternal enemy and that he desires to positively engage the U.S. In the South, Kim Dae-jung with his "Sunshine" or Engagement Policy toward his northern brothers has been most encouraging.

Although current nonconfrontational relationships may appear to be possible through the diplomacy associated with the Agreed Framework, the Four-Way peace negotiations, humanitarian assistance, and the Recovery Operations for Korean War Remains, several major obstacles continue to hinder the process. North Korea insists on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Republic of Korea, the removal of economic sanctions, and a greater amount of humanitarian assistance. Before any progress can be made toward a peace settlement, these North Korean demands must be resolved. One of the three demands is appears to be working: North Korea is Asia's second largest recipient of U.S. aid, which includes food, medicine, fuel oil, and other humanitarian assistance. They also receive compensation for services provided to aid in the recovery of the Korean War remains. Since the U.S. government is providing assistance to North Korea, continuing economic sanctions against that regime is illogical and counterproductive. Kim Dae-jung supports, and in fact has sought for the U.S. to lift the economic sanctions. This action would likely provide North Korea with a more flexible economic strategy. With increased business interactions (cheap labor costs, co-production opportunities, business incentives, foreign investments etc.) with the U.S. and the rest of the world, North Korea should be able to slowly overcome the economic difficulties facing her today, and thus require less U.S. and international aid.

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES: The most contentious obstacle to the success of the reconciliation process has been North Korea's demand for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. A peace settlement will ultimately require withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea. Perhaps it's time to begin to relocate our forces away from Korea. In spite of the official North Korean intransigence on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea, there may be groups in both Koreas and in neighboring countries that would feel insecure about a U.S. withdrawal and therefore, would not desire a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula. If the U.S. troops must leave Korea, they need to be relocated within Northeast Asia, perhaps Japan in order to be able to quickly respond if necessary. With the modern vertical warfare technologies, weapons of this sort should be able to buy the time necessary to provide for the timely arrival of ground, sea, and air forces. The withdrawal of U.S. troops must be carefully orchestrated to include phased troop disengagement along the DMZ, arms and troop reductions on both sides as supervised by international multilateral military forces which constitute a monitoring organization lead by a non-U.S. Commander from the UN Peace Enforcement or Peacekeeping forces.

These prevailing conditions from the Koreas give hope that the resolution of the U.S. troop presence in South Korea, along with the cooperative transparent actions and the continuance of foreign humanitarian and economic assistance to North Korea, could be a means of building confidence and trust. Peaceful coexistence could be achieved through negotiations resulting in accords, agreements, and continuing dialogue, allowing both sides to develop the trust needed to overcome the years of hatred, secrecy, and suspicion. Emergent trust and friendship could produce a spirit of cooperation, which could eventually lead to the establishment of a true peace.

TREAT A LARGE WOUND WITH A LARGE DRESSING: What are some bold actions that could contribute decisively to achieving this ever-elusive peace? These bold yet transparent actions should not blatantly pursue the reunification of the Koreas, but rather seek a path of reconciliation by focusing energies on future hopes, not past hatreds, through an expanded engagement strategy. Once a peace accord has been accomplished between the U.S. and North Korea and between the two Koreas, the evolutionary process of reconciliation will likely lead both Koreas to achieve the ultimate goal - the reunification of Korea.

Let's look at the bold actions of some historical figures who have moved the world closer to a peaceful coexistence. The most notable example of turning a fragile relationship between adversaries into a trusting relationship was seen in President Richard Nixon's 1972 diplomatic demarche, meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong of China. Other examples, no less impressive, include, Ronald Regan's 1986 summit with Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, the 1988 invitations to the Soviets to visit to the military installations in the U.S. and the Soviet Union by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe and his Soviet counterpart, Marshall of the Soviet Union Sergei Akhromeyev, as well as Anwar Sadat's historical peace trip to Israel in 1977.

Such bold change in Northeast Asia would include a regional leadership summit. A periodic summit should be initiated with the national leaders from China, Japan, both Koreas, Russia, and the United States to provide a positive vision for the future of Northeast Asia. Some of the most important items on the agenda for this meeting should be to achieve a full diplomatic relationship, nuclear, biological and chemical weapons free zone, arms and forces reduction, and economic issues leading to a peace agreement.

The bold initiatives of a few political and military leaders who hold the keys to the solution, supported by a team effort on the part of all actors involved in the dispute, and sustained by a myriad of regional and international actors, could be the catalyst needed to move the region toward peaceful coexistence if not reconciliation.

CONCLUSION. During the past 45 years, efforts of the combined forces of the U.S. and South Korea have provided a credible deterrence, have prevented an escalation of major armed conflict, and maintained a fragile peace on the Korean Peninsula. However, continued maintenance of a large deterrent conventional force will be costly to all parties involved, and even with such a deterrent, confrontation is possible. The specific problem on the Korean Peninsula is the never-ending suspicions and tensions, which remain the principal threat to the peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

To break the simmering stalemate that exists between the Koreas requires a bold new approach, an approach that will reorient the U.S. government to completely abandon the old containment/limited engagement strategy and implement an expanded constructive engagement strategy. If all else fails, the U.S. government could revert to the containment policies of the Cold War era, the military confrontation option; concurrently isolating North Korea.

When taking office, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung expressed his desire to meet with the North Korean leader as a step toward reconciliation. If the two Kims decide to meet and reconcile, this event could set the precedent for establishing a permanent peace comparable to Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel which resulted in a permanent peace agreement. The U.S. government should encourage both Koreas to do what Anwar Sadat has done for his country and Israel. If they do not, the U.S. President should take the lead to do so. Even with this type of scenario, the proper execution of a bold diplomatic relationship will become more crucial to overcome the difficulties associated with years of hatred and mistrust. But if the South Korean government decides not to participate, then the U.S. government may, in pursuit of its own national and global interests, have to go it alone initially.

Given the present economic instability of both Koreas, the sudden collapse of the North Korean regime, although unlikely, would be costly not only to the Koreas, but to the global economy. Through the bold initiatives of world leaders, and with continuing regional and international support, a depressed North Korean economy could be revitalized (expect ten plus years of foreign assistance for recovery), diplomatic relations established and a permanent peace agreement could eventually be realized.

Anwar Sadat, in reference to the peace process between his nation and Israel said "The barrier of distrust that has been between us during the last thirty years has been broken down in thirty-five hours, Amazing! Really!" His efforts resulted in a Nobel Peace Award. Why shouldn't we too aspire to such progress?

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the views of the
Department of Defense or any of its agencies.

Prepared and Presented by:

InSung O. Lee,

26 February 1999

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