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Biographic Sketch & Links: James R Lilley
The Korean Peninsula:
Six Party Talks and the Nuclear Issue
James R Lilley
This nuclear weapons issue should be viewed first in a historical context which encompasses the diverse objectives of the concerned nations as well as their long term interests in the Korean peninsula. There are of course new developments in the current security "Crisis". But if we are to act effectively, the trends leading to the current situation need be understood.
For instance, China's involvement in the peninsula goes back at least 3000 years. One of the most recent arguments between China and South Korea over the Koguryo Dynasty is not without relevance to today's situation. The Koguryo Dynasty ended in the seventh century A.D. after a 600-year reign. It was based in North Korea and included a large chunk of Manchuria. The Chinese argue that Koguryo was a peripheral part of China, hence North Korea, by this definition, historically belongs to China. South Korea argues that Koguryo was an independent Korean Dynasty and historically part of Manchuria belongs to Korea. When I was in Pyongyang in January 1995 I saw an ancient wall map depicting an enlarged Koguryo map which included large parts of Manchuria. The Koguryo Dynasty was overthrown by the Shilla Dynasty (based in South Korea), with the help of China's Great Tang Dynasty. So an issue which appears esoteric can be relevant. China has used historic allegory and shard diplomacy in the past to support current territorial claims, including its sweeping claims in the South China seas.
More recently, at the end of the 16th century, to be more precise, Japan was driven from Korea with some help from China. China later lost its influence in Korea in 1895 when Japan defeated China and seized Taiwan and eventually Korea in 1910. The role of the United States, as far as Koreans are concerned, was less than helpful. In the Taft-Katsura agreement of 1905, the United States accepted Korea as a Japanese protectorate and no Korean ever forgets this. China militarily intervened to save North Korea in 1950 and to prevent a unified Korea on its borders under Seoul allied to the United States. In this process, China was deprived of Taiwan when the 7th Fleet was ordered into the Taiwan Strait. Chinese troops in North Korea remained until 1957 and China provided massive economic military aid to restore North Korea. This has not been fully acknowledged by North Korea. The policy of full Chinese support for North Korea lasted until the late 1980s when China saw the successful rise of South Korea, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the deterioration of North Korea. It saw an opportunity to shift its policy and to start influencing the probable winner, South Korea. China joined the Olympics in Seoul in 1988 over North Korean protests and recognized South Korea in 1992. At the same time, it deftly managed the entry of both Koreas into the United Nations over North Korea's initial objections.
A wise Chinese expert on North Korea who interpreted for Chinese and North Korean top leadership emphasized to me the long term trend in Chinese policy toward the Korea peninsula. He said, "We fought you between 1950 and 1953 and did not recognize a thriving South Korea for over 40 years, but today we are expanding our influence peacefully in South Korea and North Korea is dependent on us economically and strategically." He said North Korea had adopted a Stalinist economic model and North Korea would face massive starvation. He said this three years before North Korea had its disastrous famine in the mid-1990s.
China seeks to increase its influence on the peninsula and reduce over time the foreign military, principally the U.S., presence. But, in the Chinese view the current situation is volatile due in part to North Korea's adventurism with WMD, and the expansion of U.S. military power and influence on China's periphery. This situation could jeopardize China's primary focus on its economic development by increasing the chances of a military confrontation, as well as creating instability in China and its neighbors. So China has taken a leading role in the six-party talks. It does perceive the U.S. as a strategic competitor who inhibits China's sovereign claims in areas such as the Senkaku islands, Taiwan and the South China Sea. But it also sees the U.S. as an important commercial partner. China will act in its own interests on the Korean peninsula and will not necessarily accommodate U.S. interests. It sees North Korea as a useful buffer and as a distraction for the U.S.
South Korea is going though a major shift in its approach to North Korea. This did not start yesterday. Back in 1972, the authoritarian government of President Park Chung-Hee initiated the first substantive contacts with North Korea. This earlier attempt atrophied but never totally stopped despite the violence inflicted on the South by the North. A high point was in the period 1991-92 when the democratically elected government of former general Roh Tae-Woo reached two significant joint agreements with North Korea at the premier level on denuclearization and reconciliation. Again these agreements achieved little. In 1994 the U.S. moved in and took over the primary contact with the North Koreans in order to defuse a crisis created by North Korea using its nuclear weapons program. Under president Kim Dae-Jung of South Korea a renewed effort was made to reconcile with the North. This culminated in the North-South summit of June 2000 which resulted in accelerated contacts and a series of ambitious development projects most of which remain unfulfilled, largely due to North Korea's unpredictable behavior and inordinate demands. The momentum is however still there. When I went to North Korea in January 1995 I carried with me Kim Dae-Jung's three-point proposal for gradual unification. I gave it to the North Koreans and they accepted it although they were undoubtedly fully aware of its contents. I wanted to let the North know that at least one extinguished diplomat was not a splittist and in fact favored moves toward reconciliation and eventual unification by the Koreans themselves. The Koreans told me later in private that the dear leader himself had approved my visa despite my reactionary background.
The South Koreans see reunification as a national issue. Their blood brothers in the North are failing, suffering and starving, but they remain proud and defiant. Their demand for respect and dignity and their sovereignty fixation are all very Korean. The South Korean leadership and its support base believe that connecting roads and railroads, expanding exposure through tourism, setting up industrial zones and carrying out cultural and sports exchanges will gradually relieve some of the suffering and bring the North into the modern world. This in turn would create conditions for a gradual peaceful reunification. In this process, North Korea's erratic and menacing behavior needs to be tolerated and has been rationalized by the South. Both the North and the South share a suspicion of foreigners. The last one thousand years of their common history has been inflicted with colonization, war, invasion, pillage by more powerful neighbors. The sacred mountain Paektusan lies on North Korea's border with China. Its isolation has led North Korea to turn inward, and become the hermit kingdom. This is in part protection against foreign exploitation. South Korea has Hallasan—also an extinct volcano on the Southern Sea coast facing outward—South Korea has become a part of the world. Foreigners are acceptable and can be helpful. These two influences are at work in all Koreans in varying degrees. I recall in 1995 in Pyongyang we sang sad Korean folk songs learned in the South. The Northerners knew the words and joined in.
So both China and South Korea have different perspectives on North Korea. They share to a degree our singular concern about weapons of mass destruction in the hands of North Korea. But they contend this problem can be dealt best within a larger context and thus they support the multi-lateral approach.
But they want considerable latitude for their own agendas. They insist on no unilateral preemptive strike, not even as a last resort, or even as a coercive threat. The South Koreans understand that a strong U.S. military presence is necessary as a credible deterrence, and is also needed for economic stability. They do share the objective of economic reform and humanitarian aid, but they care less than we do about monitoring it. In sum, they want to do it their way, not ours. Both South Korea and China have in the past used economic leverage but they have kept it controlled and conditioned by their own biases. There is evidence China's enormous economic aid is not well monitored and South Korea has reportedly used large blobs of bribery for immediate advantage.
After this brief exposure to a very long and complex historic experience, I will try to become more contemporary. North Korea is basically a failed state whose priority is survival. Its Achilles heel is its need for foreign economic assistance. It is surrounded by successful modern and powerful states (Japan, China, and South Korea) that have the assistance they need to survive.
The most dangerous threat from North Korea, in the U.S. view, is the proliferation of WMD or elements of it to terrorists or to states sponsoring terrorism. This is not shared fully by South Korea or China. Their assumption is that the combined power of the surrounding states can deter any use of WMD by North Korea against them and this is their primary concern. The North Korean WMD are aimed at the U.S. The terrorists', they assume, are also targeted at the U.S. The neighboring powers have in the past tried regional economic cooperation such as the Tumen river project but so far with little success. But with the addition of the U.S. and a reenergized Japan this may now be the time that a broad regional approach could actually work. It could be used to defuse the nuclear weapons problem. The six powers could meet to draft a protocol which would establish the overall objectives, requirements for participation and define some specific areas of possible immediate cooperation such as HIV/AIDS prevention, international crime, detection of national disasters, or pollution. Work could begin on establishing parameters for a nuclear free zone and multi-lateral (and even bilateral) security guarantees among the six states. International financial institutions would be on the agenda and all five could support North Korea's accession to them given that North Korea meets the appropriate conditions. I know for instance that North Korea wants do join these IFIs to get at their money.
North Korea would have to meet their requirements for membership including transparency. The initial emphasis however would have to be on strengthening and tightening the loose coalition in the six-party talks. This could later include getting the cooperation of others such as Southeast Asia (ASEAN) and Europe. All of these countries have taken positions against North Korea's nuclear weapons. It remains to organize joint incentives and disincentives powers to bring around North Korea. If North Korea continues to reject participation, then the five remaining powers can start to work without North Korea, with an open invitation to North Korea to participate in the preparatory talks.
North Korean tactics are by now familiar. The February public announcement that it has nuclear weapons, that it will not rejoin the talks and its reiteration that the problem is U.S. hostile policy are standard positions used to extract material concessions. The North has been paid handsomely to join previous talks. But this tactic should no longer be used. It is important for North Korea to understand this. Managing the nuclear weapons will be tougher in view of the February announcement, but the solution lies in an across-the-board arms reduction program as spelled out in the joint Korean agreements of 1991-92 where intrusive inspections applied to both parties and the U.S. The benefits for North Korea that would derive from joining the regional organization could only come with verifiable denuclearization. In the longer run, the regional organization could develop cooperative efforts to combat narcotics, intellectual property rights violations plus counterfeiting of all sorts, illegal immigration and border crossings. Summit level meetings could eventually be in the cards. Recognizing that Japan and China have historically been the major competitors on the Korean peninsula, this could provide them a common framework for positive action. South Korea has already begun to establish itself in North Korea in the Gaeseong industrial complex along with the beginnings of investments and future communications link ups (See table showing South Korea's investments in Gaeseong). South Korea has persevered in these efforts in the face of continuing insults, the latest being a break off of North-South talks by North Korea on the pretext of the South kidnapping over 400 North Korean refugees from Vietnam. North Korea has in the past skillfully played off the Soviet Union against China and influenced the internal debates in South Korea. It has successfully maneuvered China, the U.S. and South Korea out of enormous sums of money, food and energy with little reciprocity. To break this pattern is our objective.
But we also know what works: a strong consistent position backed up with power and with a way out for North Korea. The armistice agreement of 1953, the tree cutting incident of 1976, and the resolution of the Pueblo case in 1968 all are instructive. (See Over the Line published by American Enterprise Institute press in 1999 for details on these three incidents).
North Korea's conventional military is decaying. It has not yet pulled off a successful sabotage or paramilitary operation in the 21st century. It has not tested a nuclear weapon and it has not fired the multistage Taepodong since 1998. There have been a few tentative but flawed attempts at economic reform since July 2002. Some more farmer markets are appearing and goods and food are more available. The private sector is growing rapidly as the government sector shrinks.
Previous attempts at industrial zones at Najin-Sunbong and Sinuiju have flopped but Gaeseong seems to hold more promise. There are already direct access routes to South Korea from Gaeseong. All recognize North Korea still has stringent internal controls and remains a totalitarian state which makes progress halting and difficult. When I went to China in 1973 it was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. Four years later, China moved to economic reform which changed the world. North Korea has no Deng Xiaoping nor does it have Chinese sophistication. But someone may be trying to break out of the self-imposed cage. In the end, this is one we cannot lose. We hold the good cards—it remains for us to play them more skillfully.
Ambassador James R. Lilley is a senior fellow at AEI.