The ICAS Lectures

No. 2003-0509-JJP


The Security Landscape of the East Asia:
The North Koreaís Threats and Options
for Seoul, Tokyo and Washington


James J. Przystup



ICAS Spring Symposium &
Humanity, Peace and Security
May 9, 2003 12:00 PM - 5:45 PM.
U.S. Senate Dirksen Office Building Room 106
Capitol Hill
Washington, D. C.


Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

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Biographic Sketch & Links: James J. Przystup






The Security Landscape of the East Asia:
The North Koreaís Threats and Options
for Seoul, Tokyo and Washington


James J. Przystup
(ICAS Fellow: Sr. Fellow and Research Professor,
Institute of National Strategic Studies,
National Defense University)


Thank you. My mother always asked, was there something wrong with me? Well, thereís a lot wrong, obviously. But Mom always asked, "Why are you studying Asia? Whatís wrong with Europe?" And I had to explain to her once. I mean, when I grew up, my grandfather and grandmother only spoke Polish, so we spoke Polish with them. And then when they died, I supposed to become the second generation, melting pot generation, and so my parents didnít speak Polish at home, except when I was going to the doctor or the dentist, or something bad was about to happen to me. So my vocabulary in that area remained pretty strong. And then when I went to college, I decided -- well, give it a shot. Weíll try and get back and recover lost heritage. So I studied Polish for one year at college, and it was an interesting experience. I was a Classics major so I spent a lot of time, six years with Latin and Greek, and I was pretty good with tenses and declensions and all the rest of that. But then I came to Polish, and what really sent me off into Asia is I came to the imperfect tense in Polish and found that there were masculine, feminine and neuter endings for verbs in the imperfect tense. I said, somethingís got to be easier than this. So that got me off into Asia!

Todayís talk -- truth in advertising -- I have to say that I changed the title and the topic slightly from what Sang Joo and I had talked about, and the topic today is "Strategic Dynamics: The United States, East Asia, and the Challenges of the Korean Peninsula." This will be a three-part presentation. First, a broad definition of U.S. interests in East Asia. Second, a look ahead to the dynamics now shaping the region. And then weíll conclude with a look at the strategic challenges posed by the developments on the Korean peninsula.

So, first -- United States interests in the Asia-Pacific region. I think whatís been most striking to me, looking at it as a historian, is how remarkably consistent the definition of American interests has been over the past century. This is true with regard to both Republican and Democratic administrations alike. And I think, if you were to go back and look at the documents that have been issued, U.S. interests in the region would be defined as follows, roughly along these lines: the first would be, of course, the protection of the United States and its allies from attack, and since September 11, the prosecution of the war on terrorism. Second would be maintaining regional peace and stability. Third would be preventing the region from coming under the domination of a single power or group of powers to the exclusion of the United Statesí economic and political interests, stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as well as ballistic delivery systems, maintaining freedom of the seas and ensuring access to the markets of the region, and finally, the promotion of democracy and human rights.

I think this has been a remarkably consistent list, as I said, and the U.S. has gone about this -- pursuing these interests in a number of ways. At the turn of the last century, Theodore Roosevelt -- as Iím sure youíre aware -- really played Balance of Power politics with regard to the Korean peninsula, aligning with Japan to check what he considered to be the threat of Russian influence on the Korean peninsula and on North China.

Following the First World War, the United States resorted to multilateralism and great power cooperation as embodied in the Washington Conference System which aimed to stabilize China, to regulate naval armaments, and protect and advance American interests. So there was balance of power, multilateralism, and then during the Cold War and today, the U.S. has relied essentially on a system of bilateral alliances to protect its strategic interests in the region, and these alliances with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, and Thailand really now serve as the regionís informal security structure. Itís a difference region than Europe, but itís not a multilateral structure in terms of security, but itís based on these bilateral alliances.

Now, maybe getting beyond where we are today, but looking -- a bit of futurology -- what I also wanted to do was to look ahead to the dynamics that are shaping the region, and I would offer that there are at least two views that are current within the U.S. Government. The first is that which was outlined by the Quadrennial Defense Review in September 2001, just after 9/11, and then the National Security Strategy which was issued the following year. So let me just begin with the QDR and give you a snapshot of what the region looks like to some folks in the administration.

The QDR defines the contemporary international environment -- or defines the environment of September 2001 as more fluid and unpredictable than the previous Cold Ear era. This is an environment in which the United States relations with the outside world are marked by both competition and cooperation. And, although no peer competitor like the former Soviet Union was likely to emerge over the next 10, 15, 25 years, the QDR did posit that the potential exists for regional powers to develop sufficient capabilities to threaten stability in regions critical to U.S. interests. The QDR also noted that Asia in particular is gradually emerging as a region susceptible to large-scale military competition. At the same time, it defined the geographic area stretching from the Middle East to Northeast Asia as an arc of instability, marked by a volatile mix of rising and declining powers. In some of these states, governments are challenged by radical or extremist political forces, in others governments have the capability to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Now, the QDR was diplomatically discreet in not identifying potential regional challengers to the United States, and in not classifying which of Asiaís countries are part of the volatile mix of rising and declining powers. However, on the Korean peninsula, North Korea clearly is not a rising power, and it has made clear its intent to pursue a nuclear weapons program even as its economy remains critically dependent on international humanitarian assistance. Across the region, however, only one country is commonly recognized as a rising power, and that of course is China.

So thatís kind of the QDR view of Asia.

Now, the national security strategy was published a year after 9/11, and it takes a slightly different view of the region and the relationship of the powers in the region -- the countries in the region. It starts with the introduction -- "Today, the international community has the best chance, since the rise of the nation state in the 17th Century, to build a world where the worldís great powers cooperate to protect the peace of the world." It goes on to assert that "Today the worldís great powers are on the same side, united by common dangers of terrorist violence and chaos." The document recognizes, however, that "regional crises can strain our alliances and rekindle rivalries among the major powers." Rogue states come in for particular attention and, although North Korea is not named, I donít think few would dispute that it shows the characteristics with which the national security strategy defines that species.

The document also welcomes the emergence of a stable and peaceful, prosperous China, however it also warns that Chinaís leadership has yet to shed the worst vestiges of its Communist past, and has yet to decide on the future character of the state. Meanwhile it notes that China is continuing a significant military modernization program that poses a threat to Chinaís neighbors in the region.

So thatís kind of a big picture view of the region -- the national security strategy and the QDR picture -- slightly different. The emphasis in the national security strategy is on great power cooperation. The QDR looks more at challenges likely to arise in the region from regional powers.

Now, I think the two regional powers, as we come toward the peninsula that we need to look at that will significantly influence the evolution of what happens on the peninsula, are both China and Japan. Now, during much of the 1990s, U.S. strategic thinking on China has focused on the process of Chinaís emergence as a great power in the region. It has constantly been defined as a "process of emergence" on the state of its becoming a great power. Now, I think thatís a bit dated now, and I think what we have to realize and we have to work with is the fact that indeed China has emerged as a great power in East Asia, and that this reality is reflected in Chinaís growing commercial, political and diplomatic influence in the region. This has only been underscored by recent developments on the Korean peninsula. China is now the Republic of Koreaís largest trading partner, and is playing a significant role with respect to the nuclear challenge by North Korea.

Internally, China appears to have made a successful transition, political transition to a new generation of leaders. President Jung Su Min (?) and Premier Ju Lan Shi (?) have given way to Hu Jin Tau (?) and Min ...... (?). Still China is not without its problems. Wide disparities in the distribution of wealth between dynamic coastal areas and the backwater interior; the break-up of the dinosaur state-owned enterprises fully opening the economy to external competition; banking reform; deregulation; degradation of the environment -- to cite but a few. Nevertheless, I think the leadership remains committed to the opening and market reform of the economy launched over 20 years ago by the late D............

Externally, China has moved aggressively, I think, to advance a free trade agenda across the region. In 2001 China proposed the China-Asian Free Trade Agreement and in 2002 one with Japan and South Korea. Beijing has also moved toward participation in the regionís multilateral security dialogues and to work constructively in devising a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

At the same time, I think we have to recognize that Chinaís economic success has been translated into its ongoing modernization of the PLA, and that the introduction of high-tech weaponry including aircraft and submarines can pose a threat to the security interests of key countries in the region. Even in that context, though, I think the administration at this time, the focus is on cooperation with China, but I think for us the issue -- and the bottom line question should be -- is: how will China as a great power exercise its growing strength and influence in the region?

Turning briefly to Japan, certainly for over a half a century now, the alliance and U.S. presence deployed in Japan is certainly the foundation of Americaís regional security strategy, and this has been the case, I think, in terms of assuring friends and allies in the Pacific region, dissuading and deterring threats, and confronting those threats with the reality of defeat should U.S. and Japanese interests be challenged.

When you look at it from a U.S. perspective, the alliance is not simply focused on the defense of Japan but really has both a regional and a global dimension to it. The ability to project power nearly halfway around the globe from Japan was critical to our success in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and again in Afghanistan and most recently with Iraq. So when you think about the alliance from a U.S. perspective, itís not only focused on the defense of Japan, but it also has broader regional and global strategic implications. And I think what weíve seen in the last decade in Japan has been an evolution in Japanese thinking about security and extension of Japanís role in issues relating to international stability and security. I think thereís clearly a greater realism evidenced in Japan with regard to the discussion of security issues. I remember 25 years ago when I first went to Japan as a student, to find an article written on a security issue, you had to look at Sankay (?) and even in Sankay it was on page 7 in the back of the paper. But I think thatís changed significantly over the past 25 years. These issues now are front-page news and they are discussed not only in the press, but in the Diet as well. And I think that whatís come home and whatís happened in Japan is a recognition that Japan, in a post-Cold War environment is living in a very rough and tough neighborhood, and starting with the Ro..... Test in 1993, Taiwan Straits missile crisis in 1996, the T...... Test over Japan in 1998, the North Korean spy ship incursions which have gone on continually, and now the current nuclear crisis on the peninsula followed by more North Korean missile shots into the Sea of Japan -- I think itís made clear to people that there are serious security issues that have to be addressed. And I think if you look at the public opinion polling that U.S.I.A. has done certainly, thereís a clear trend line over the past decade in terms of growing support for the alliance, recognition of the importance of the alliance to Japan.

So let me just take that -- let me just now move ahead to looking at the Korean peninsula which is one enduring strategic reality that is going to -- I think will continue to be a challenge for the United States for a very long period of time. I think the challenge -- if we look at it in the context of the QDR and the National Security Strategy, the challenge posed by North Korea is simultaneously a twofold challenge: that of a declining state as well as that of a rogue state engaged in developing weapons of mass destruction. And the crisis on the Korean peninsula as the national security strategy warns clearly risks the straining of key regional alliances, in this case with the ROK and Japan, and I think weíve seen that happen over the past two-and-a-half years. There have been real strains placed on the alliance. At the same time, I think it offers the opportunity for enhanced cooperation among the United States, the ROK and Japan. And this is one of the things I think we really need to think about very carefully as we move ahead in dealing with North Korea.

One of the key realities to my mind that U.S. policymakers have to look at is the fact of increasing South-North interaction. I think this is a clear trend. It began with the Summit in 2000. Itís been ongoing, and I think itís been reinforced by the election of last December, and by the generational change that is occurring in the Republic of Korea. These are realities that we are going to have to deal with

At the same time, I think North Koreaís successive admissions of a uranium- based nuclear weapons program, its threat to test and/or export nuclear weapons or weapons grade -- reprocessed weapons grade spent fuel poses a complex security challenge to the United States, the ROK and Japan. From my perspective, the immediate objective of U.S. policy must be the verifiable termination of North Koreaís nuclear weapons and missile programs. The realization of these objectives is the sine qua non for the development of any long-term relationship with North Korea.

Now, the central issue is one of strategy -- how to realize these objectives. I think youíve got two choices. In essence the options are either to negotiate with North Korea, or to bring concerted international pressure to bear on Pyongyang to cause it to terminate its weapons of mass destruction program. The third option -- the use of force against Pyongyang and the facilities of the uranium enrichment program carries a great risk of retaliation against Seoul and at the same time -- one of the things that Iíve been thinking about even more recently has been, what would happen if the U.S. were to attack ...... now and what would happen if North Korea actually didnít respond? What if North Korea didnít attack Seoul? You know, as Iíve been thinking about it -- well, North Korea has two programs, and ...... only takes out one program. So the North Koreans might be prepared to suffer the loss of the ....... Reactor and maintain its second uranium-based program and then turn to South Korea and say, "You want to be allied with these kind of guys?" And you know, "Itís just us Koreans on the peninsula, and the Chinese are not going away, and the Japanese are not going away, and by the way, nuclear weapons do have a deterrent effect." So thatís one of the lines Iíve been thinking about. I donít know how far that would go. Perhaps we can talk about that later.

Direct negotiation, however, requires credibility on the part of the interlocutors, and unfortunately, North Koreaís pursuit of a nuclear weapons program puts it in violation of a long list of international obligations it has assumed -- a non-proliferation treaty, itís IAEA safeguards agreement, the joint north-south agreement of the denuclearization of the peninsula, and of course, the agreed (?) framework.

Now, from my perspective at least, this is vitiated itís bona fides as a negotiating partner. I find it extremely difficult to think about negotiating with an entity that has, from my perspective, very little credibility, and you know, the discussion here in Washington had been, in last October-November, that we needed to negotiate with North Korea -- we had to impose harder conditions. But to my mind, this would be an exercise in self-deception. I mean, if theyíre not prepared to accept the conditions theyíve already agreed to, why are they going to accept even harder conditions? And I donít have the answer to that one. But I do think diplomacy is important. I think it is important to lay the predicate for future non-diplomatic actions, should they become necessary. I think we have to be able to demonstrate to South Korea, to Japan and to China that we really have tried to engage North Korea, but the reality is that I donít think North Korea is prepared to surrender its nuclear weapons program. I think it sees the weapons program as the ultimate insurance policy of regime survival. I donít think North Korea is interested in the kind of economic opening that we think about when we talk about an economic opening. I think it sees that as a real threat to the regimeís survival.

Now, thereís an interesting discussion -- one of the members of the Kelly (?) party in October told me subsequently that in a side conversation, not across the negotiating table, he engaged one of the senior North Korean officials and tried to explain to him what we were trying to do, that once you surrender your weapons program, then you have this opportunity for a great and bright economic future. And that you trade in your weapons you go behind Door No. 2, and thereís this great sunshine and everybody looks better in North Korea. And as he told me, the North Korean official played it back to him. He said, "Now, let me get this straight. I trade in my weapons and all North Koreans live better. Is that right?" And he said, "Yeah, thatís kind of -- thatís it. In short." And his reply was, "Well, I donít think so." And this American official asked, he says, "Well, what do you mean -- you donít think so?" He said, "Well, from my perspective, itís as good as it gets right now, and anything else is a great risk." And so I think we have to be prepared that weíre dealing with a very stubborn and a very recalcitrant North Korea that is not going to be prepared to turn in its nuclear weapons and to join the international economy.

Now, what the Bush Administration has been doing has been very close to -- itís followed the strategy that the first Bush Administration of which I was a part employed in dealing with the ........ reactor crisis of 1989 and 1991. At that time, we were seeing through intelligence that North Korea -- there were explosive tests going on around ...... The reactor was operating. There were no power lines connected to it. And so our question was: whatís going on? And my job then on the Planning Staff of the State Department was to figure out: how do we find out what is going on? And what we resorted to ultimately was a diplomatic strategy that is very similar to the one that is being followed now. We used every avenue into Pyongyang that we could exploit. We went to China, we went to the Soviet Union, we went to Geneva, we went to the U.N. We went to anybody who had any relations at all with North Korea with a very similar message, and that message was: youíve signed an international agreement. You have to honor it. You signed an IAEA Accord, you have to honor it. And you donít get any rewards for honoring obligations that you have assumed. This is whatís expected of a credible international actor.

Well, ultimately we were successful, and that was the start of the next ....... crisis because we did have inspectors who got in and who looked at the declarations and realized there was a discrepancy between what they have declared in terms of reprocessed fuel and what we found, and that triggered the crisis of Ď93 and í94. But the bottom line is, I think the strategy is very similar to the one that is now being followed by the administration. And I think thereís some cause for hope, and North Korea certainly is in a weaker position, but again, as I was saying, I think after having witnessed Kosovo and having witnessed Afghanistan and now Iraq, I guess Iím very doubtful that the North Koreans are going to be prepared to trade in their nuclear weapons program.

So in this context, I think what we are going to be faced with is a situation and a strategy that focuses on deterrence and containment. And I think we have to think about -- how do you deal with -- there are at least three different kinds of North Koreas that I think we have to think about how do we deal with. The first is a North Korea that has nuclear weapons, that admits that it has nuclear weapons, or at least strongly suggests that it has, as it has in the meetings in October and again in April. So thatís one North Korea. How do we deal with that?

And then, a second North Korea is one that has nuclear weapons, that is now running the reactor and reprocessing, and building more nuclear weapons. Thatís a second North Korea we have to think about, I think, from a policy and a strategy perspective. And the third North Korea that we have to deal with is one that is doing reprocessing and is building nuclear weapons, and it is moving nuclear weapons or reprocessed plutonium off the peninsula into the international environment.

Those are three different kinds of North Korea that require three different ways of thinking about the problem and three different strategies for dealing with the program. But I think itís very important now -- even as we still continue to talk in terms of diplomacy, trying to address the issue in terms of peaceful resolution -- we have to start thinking ahead: what do we do if diplomacy does not produce the results that weíre looking for? So thatís the nuclear issue in North Korea.

One other thing I want to touch on in terms of U.S./ROK relations, and that is the issue of transformation on the Korean peninsula -- transformation of the U.S. presence and force posture on the peninsula. I think this -- the point I want to make is this is not something new. This is something that goes back at least a decade to the East Asia strategy initiative of 1991 which was aimed at lowering the U.S. presence on the peninsula, moving the headquarters -- moving out of downtown Seoul, getting -- moving Yungson (?) back into the ROK. It was focused on changes in command structure, and it was a -- it was a ten-year plan that was aimed at how do you -- theyíre trying to lay out a roadmap of how do we actually effect these changes? And I think this is very similar to what I think Secretary Rumsfeld is talking about now -- how do you transform? How do you move out of Seoul? So I think the key thing here is this is not something that is new. This is something that has been in training for a considerable period of time, and that the whole objective here is to make the alliance with the ROK politically more sustainable over time. What weíre looking at is a long-term relationship and how do you sustain that relationship? And I think one of the ways you go about it is by making the United States less obtrusive by moving toward greater mutuality and equality in terms of command relationships and by shrinking the U.S. footprint on the peninsula.

I guess the one thing thatís missing at this point is really -- to my mind -- an East Asia strategy initiative that really does take a ten year look out from where weíre at right now, that provides a blueprint to our allies in the region as to where weíre going, how weíre going to get there and how they can think about incorporating their own force structure and budgeting into that same process.

So let me just close on that and say that my experience in working securities issues that affect the peninsula and with the ROK has taught me one thing, and that is the unique value of an alliance relationship, that the trust, the confidence and the intimacy of a relationship between allies is something that really cannot be replicated or duplicated with non-allies. I donít think we could have ever come close to managing the first ....... crisis had we not had the alliance, and I think itís that trust and confidence that even in the difficult times weíre facing now that I think will continue to sustain the alliance and continue to make it a long-term instrument that protects and advances both the security of the ROK, the United States and the region of Northeast Asia. Thank you very much.



This page last updated 8/14/2003 jdb



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