The ICAS Lectures

No. 2003-0214-BQL

The Korean Peninsula Issues:
The U S - South Korea Relations and The North Korean Threat

Ben Q. Limb

ICAS Spring Symposium;
Humanity, Peace and Security
February 14, 2003 12:00 PM - 5:50 PM.
U.S. Senate Dirksen Office Building Room 106
Capitol Hill
Washington, D. C.

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Ben Q. Limb

The Korean Peninsula Issues:
The U S - South Korea Relations and The North Korean Threat

Ben Q. Limb

Thank you, Dr. Kim, for inviting me to this conference. It is humbling for me to share this podium in this historic U.S. Senate hearing room with other distinguished speakers

I realize that I am the speaker on the same subject that the first speaker, Dr. Doug Bandow, spoke about earlier. By the way, I must confess that I learned a lot from Dr. Doug’s thought-provoking, excellent presentation.

Last week, from February 2nd to 5th, I was here in Washington, with the delegation from President-Elect Roh Moo-hyun. The delegation met with the key officials in the Bush Administration and the leaders in the Congress. We also had a meeting with a few dozen leaders of foreign affairs research community in Washington and elsewhere who have been involved in the Korean affairs in one capacity or another. Throughout these meetings, the discussions centered around two main issues: The ROK-U.S. alliance and the North Korean nuclear debacle, which is the very subject that I am about to discuss with you today.

But before I begin my presentation, let me make it absolutely clear that the views that I am about to share with you are my own personal opinion. As such, these views have nothing to do with the positions of the president-elect, his transition team, or the current government in Seoul.

Having said that, let me begin my discourse today by sharing with you some of my thoughts about the ROK-U.S. relationship.

As you know, the year 2003 marks the 50th anniversary of the ROK-US Mutual Defense Treaty. This year also marks the centennial of Korean immigration to the United States.

As we celebrate these historic events, my country is overshadowed by the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. Under these circumstances, we cannot overemphasize the importance of the ROK-U.S. security alliance.

I believe that my country under the new president will take necessary measures to solidify the ROK-U.S. relationship. I want you to know that our president- elect has already taken a number of actions to underscore his commitment to the bilateral security alliance.

For example, on December 20th last year, while addressing to the nation after his election victory, the president-elect emphasized that the traditional friendship and alliance between Korea and the U.S. must mature and advance in the years to come.

The president-elect stated, and I quote:

"The ROK-U.S. alliance provided deterrence against North Korean aggression.

It also provided a secure environment necessary for the economic development in my country." Unquote.

On January 13th, when Under Secretary James Kelly came to see him as a special envoy from President Bush,

The president-elect told him in no uncertain terms, and I quote:

"We did need the U.S. troops in Korea in the past, we need them now and we will continue to need them in the future." Unquote.

Two days later, the president-elect went to the headquarters of the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces. He told the Combined Forces Commander, General Lyon LaPorte, and I quote:

"The ROK-U.S. alliance is essential for our national security, And the U.S. troops in Korea are the backbone of such Alliance." Unquote.

He further stated and I quote:

"American troops here in Korea are a prerequisite for peace and security on the Korean peninsular, and we continue to need you here in the future." Unquote.

The president-elect made such pronouncements during and after the election campaign. Yet, he was unfairly described in foreign media as having instigated "anti-Americanism" while the street demonstrations took place during the election campaign.

Speaking of the demonstrations let me point out that these rallies were originally initiated by a young man who proposed a candlelight vigil in the memory of the two schoolgirls who had been killed by a U.S. army vehicle.

As the candlelight demonstrations continued, the participants began to voice their protest against the acquittal of the two U.S. soldiers who were responsible for the tragic deaths of two teenage girls.

It is true that in the heat of passion, the demonstrators shouted anti-American slogans and a fraction of them demanded the U.S. troop withdrawal from Korea.

However, the overwhelming majority of the demonstrators did not advocate the U.S. troop withdrawal. Instead, they expressed their desire to have a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement, which controls the conduct of the U.S. troops in Korea.

In fact their demand for a revised SOFA presupposes the continued presence of the U.S. forces in my country.

Some of you may know how the president-elect responded to these demonstrations during the election campaign. The conventional wisdom was that supporting these demonstrations would gain a substantial number of votes for a candidate. This is precisely the reason why other presidential candidates personally participated in the demonstrations and signed an open letter addressed to President Bush. By the way the letter was drafted by the demonstrators.

Unlike his opponents, the president-elect refused to participate in the demonstrations and refused to endorse the open letter.

Not only that. After the election, the president-elect invited the organizers of the demonstrations and counseled them to discontinue the rallies, He told them that they had been heard, and further demonstrations would be inappropriate and would not be in the best interest of the country. Consequently, these candlelight demonstrations have eventually stopped. At a result, anti-American sentiment in Korea has been diminished.

It is interesting to note that a recent poll taken on February 9th by Korea’s MBC Television News and the Korea Research Center shows that 76.6 percent of the people in my country desire to have the U.S. troops in Korea as apposed to 18.9 percent, who do not.

In the same poll, 71.6 percent of South Koreans believe that the candlelight demonstrations were an expression of their desire to have a more balanced relationship with the U.S., whereas 18.5 percent of them believe that the demonstrations were motivated by anti-Americanism.

Despite such positive trends, many Americans believe that there is a growing anti-Americanism in my country. This perceptional problem has been created in large part by the American media, which focused their attention on some irrational behaviors of certain individuals who displayed a hostile attitude towards the U.S. troops. Of course, these individuals did not reflect the general attitude of the Koreans. But they provided necessary material for sensational journalism.

In this situation, perception is reality. We have to deal with this perceptional problem very seriously, because, it hurts our security alliance and it hurts our economy very badly.

Now, let me take a moment to look at the bright side of our alliance between the two countries. If we look back, it is very significant that the alliance between our two countries has continued for one half of a century.

Your ambassador to my country, Thomas Hubbard pointed out last month during a television interview, and I quote:

"In the course of history, a 50-year alliance is very unusual and a very important thing." Unquote.

Ambassador Hubbard further stated, and I quote:

"I think we can judge the success of the alliance by what we see here in South Korea. We see in South Korea a free and energetic people. We see a highly successful economy, We see a high standard of living, and we see a very lively and free democracy up on the way at all times." Unquote.

Ambassador Hubbard further pointed out that our alliance has played its most important role in preserving the peace and security on the Korean peninsula, which has allowed us to develop as we have.

Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot agree more.

There is no doubt that the ROK-U.S. alliance has a broader dimension than just military aspect. Over the years, my country and the U.S. have developed a substantially large economic relationship. Last year the volume of trade between our two countries amounted to approximately $60 billion dollars. The U.S. market has been an important factor in the development of the Korean economy. It is also true that our economic interaction has been beneficial to the United States.

By the way, when we talk about our bilateral relationship, we cannot overlook the educational interaction between our two countries. As we all know, an overwhelming majority of the leaders in my country in various sectors were educated in the United States. While the U.S. educational system has helped contribute to Korean development, Koreans and Korean Americans have made an important contribution to the advancement of scholarship in their respective fields in this country. Our host, Dr. Kim, is a good example.

In the area of cultural exchange, we all know that quite a few Korean world- class musicians were trained here in America and they contribute to the development of the arts in this country. We also have a number of world champions and national heroes in the area of sports who came from Korea and contribute to the improvement of the quality of life in America.

So there has been a large give and take that has made our relationship mutually beneficial to both countries.

Having touched upon the positive side of our relationship let me turn now to a serious problem that is challenging the ROK-U.S. security alliance today.

I am, of course, talking about the nuclear threat posed by the North. The Geneva Agreed Framework, which had discouraged North Korea’s nuclear ambition, met its demise.

There are conflicting views as to what caused such demise. But we should not dwell upon the causes. Doing so would be time-consuming at best and may end up in useless blame shifting. What is important is how South Korea and the U.S. can work together and resolve the problem before it deteriorates beyond the point of repair.

It seems to me that there are certain common grounds between our two countries in approaching this problem.

First, President-Elect Roh Moo-hyun declared that his administration would have a zero tolerance for North Korea’s nuclear development programs. President Bush also condemned the North’ nuclear scheme in the strongest terms. The leaders of our two nations have repeatedly demanded that North Korea should immediately dismantle any and all nuclear weapons programs.

Second, the president-elect stated that North Korea’s nuclear problem should be resolved through dialogue and by peaceful means. President Bush and Secretary Powell have made it clear that the U.S. has no hostile intension against Pyongyang or a plan to invade or attack North Korea and the U.S. will solve the problem through diplomacy.

Third, the United States is urging South Korea to play "a leading role" in resolving this problem. The president-elect declared that his administration would play a proactive role in this regard and in doing so, South Korea will consult closely with the U.S. and Japan as well as other neighboring states namely, China and Russia,

Last week, the president-elect dispatched a special mission to the U.S. and Japan to find ways for joint efforts in solving the North Korean nuclear issues. Yesterday a similar mission was sent to China and Russia.

Fourth, we agree that the nuclear threat from the North is not an exclusively U.S. problem. Pyongyang’s nuclear programs violate not only the Agreed Framework, They also violate the South-North Joint Agreement on Denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. It is also a threat to Japan. Neither is it acceptable to China and Russia. And it is also a challenge to the international nonproliferation regime. To the extent that the North Korean nuclear issue is a challenge to the multi-lateral community, it requires a multilateral response.

Fifth, the president-elect and President Bush agree that we need to talk with Pyongyang. President Bush and Secretary Powell have said on a number of occasions that the U.S. is ready to talk with North Korea. At the recent Senate hearing, the high-ranking officials from the Bush administration testified that the U.S. is ready to open a dialogue with Pyongyang.

Sixth, President Bush and Secretary Powell have announced that if North Korea satisfies Washington’s concern for nuclear weapons the U.S. is prepared to offer a "bold initiative" or a "broad approach" which include energy supplies, and other economic aid to North Korea. The president-elect welcomes such approach.

Based on these common grounds that I have just enunciated, my country under the new administration and the U.S. should speak with one voice on the nuclear issue.

We are fully aware that Pyongyang is trying to drive a wedge between our two nations.

Pyongyang is claiming that the current confrontation pits the entire Korean people (in North and South) against the United States. Let me tell you. Few people in my country will believe what Pyongyang is claiming.

Under the ROK-U.S. mutual defense treaty, an attack on South Korea is an attack on the U.S. And the reverse is also true. Neutrality is not an option in our alliance, especially when we confront the North Korean nuclear issue.

Having said that, let me quickly point out that there is no quick fix for the problem. South Korea and the U.S. agree what to achieve. But there is some difference in how we achieve the common goal.

First, one of the issues is how to open a dialogue with Pyongyang. Up to now, the U.S. has chosen not to talk with Pyongyang, except to discuss how Pyongyang will dismantle its nuclear programs in a verifiable and irreversible manner.

On the other hand, Pyongyang says the present impasse can only be resolved through direct talks with Washington. Pyongyang demands that the U.S. should be ready to deliver a non-aggression treaty, and a promise not to interfere with North Korea's international economic relations. They say if these conditions are met, Pyongyang will satisfy all U.S. nuclear concerns..

We understand that the U.S. does not want to reward North Korea to stop it doing what it shouldn't start in the first place. However, when we consider Pyongyang’s penchant for brinkmanship, it is highly unlikely that they will accept Washington’s preconditions and say, "Okay, we are ready to dismantle our nuclear programs first. Come and hear us how." I understand that there are some leaders in the U.S. Congress who are questioning about the efficacy of a diplomacy eschewing all negotiations on certain preconditions,

While this impasse continues, Pyongyang is apparently determined to gain nuclear weapons capability. Pyongyang sees that it is the only guarantee of its survival. Unless Pyongyang is given a sufficient reason not to be panic, it may proceed with the nuclear weapons programs.

It seems to me that Russia may play a pivotal role in initiating a dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang in a multilateral setting. China also can play an important role in this regard despite its declaimer of influence over North Korea.

Second, I think there is a difference between Washington and Seoul in terms of the sense of urgency. The U.S. is preoccupied with the Iraqi situation. There is a perception that the U.S. is ready to live with a growing North Korean nuclear problem for the time being until the Iraqi war is concluded.

On the other hand, the sense of imminent danger is more real in South Korea, because of the geographical proximity to a North Korean attack.

This brings us to the third issue that is the issue of military option as the final resort to the problem. We understand that the U.S. as a matter of strategy will not rule out a surgical strike. However, the president-elect ruled out a war as a means to solving the problem.

We need to work out this apparent difference between the two countries in terms of the threat of a military engagement, both as a coercive diplomacy and a substantive means. In this regard, we need to define a "red line" together as a matter of contingency planning.

There are other issues, which require close coordination between Washington and Seoul. Under these circumstances, it might be useful to set a South Korea-U.S. bilateral task force in Washington to deal exclusively with the North Korean nuclear problem.

I admit that today I provoked more questions than offering the answers, because the problems that we are confronting are multi-layered and complex.

Let me conclude my talk today on a hopeful note:

The ROK-U.S. alliance has long served its purpose since the time of Korean War. I hope and believe that this time-honored alliance will hopefully lead my country and the U.S. to find together solutions to the current problem in the near future.

Thank you for listening.

This page last updated 3/23/2003 jdb

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