The ICAS Lectures


The Korean Peninsula:
Challenges and Prospects

James A. Leach

ICAS Spring Symposium
Humanity, Peace and Security
May 22, 2006 9:00 AM -- 7:30 PM
United States Senate Russell Office Building Caucus Room SR 325
Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. 20510
Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422


Biographic Sketch & Links: James A. Leach

The Korean Peninsula:
Challenges and Prospects

James A. Leach

(R-IA) Chairman, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific

I would like to thank Kim Sang Joo and the Institute for Corean-American studies for the invitation to speak here this evening. Please know how honored I am to be the recipient of this year's Liberty Award.

As Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, I have had occasion during the past five years to deal extensively with issues related to North and South Korea from a number of perspectives as convener of multiple hearings on the strategic situation on and around the Peninsula, as House-side author of the North Korean Human Rights Act, and as an official visitor to Pyongyang last September

Before proceeding with our policy discussion, I would first like to note the shock that all of us in Washington felt upon learning of the vicious, criminal attack on Chairwoman Park of the Grand National Party. We express our deepest wishes for her prompt and complete recovery.

I would like to focus the majority of my remarks this evening on the North Korean nuclear challenge, which, from an American perspective, represents the most acute strategic predicament on the Peninsula.

On September 19, 2005, China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States signed a Joint Statement of principles under which North Korea "committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs." At that time, some began to discern a credible assumption of mutual self-interest among the six parties, which they hoped might ultimately lead to agreement based on: economic and energy incentives provided to North Korea largely by nations other than the United States; greater normalization of relations between the U.S. and the D.P.R.K. with certain security assurances provided by the United States; and, first and foremost, the categorical reversal of nuclear activities by North Korea.

However, in contrast to the hopes surrounding the statement of principles, the intervening eight months have brought no substantive progress toward that end, and the Six Party process is beginning to appear moribund.

The continuation of present circumstances is particularly regrettable because time is on no one's side. Every day of the status quo is another day for the North Korean regime to produce additional fissile material, and another day that the people of North Korea fall further behind the remarkable economic and social march of the rest of Asia.

The time has come for the United States to seize the diplomatic initiative and lead. While the malfeasance of the North Korean government has brought us to this impasse, it remains in the interest of the United States to initiate additional dialogue, even if prospects for its success are uncertain. Alternatively, to continue to maintain a reactive approach such as placing unrealistic conditions on high-level contacts and other forms of meaningful engagement with the DPRK cedes power to parties whose interests are not identical to our own. In particular, waiting for North Korea to take the next step leaves too much control in the hands of a regime that has insufficient self-confidence or incentive to denuclearize.

We must continually test the intent of North Korea and not miss any opportunity for progress, however improbable. Perhaps just as important, we are also obligated to demonstrate to the other parties in the region that the intransigence impeding progress is not ours. It is a discouraging but unavoidable fact that such perceptions are increasingly common among the public of South Korea, an ally whose concurrence will be required for any foreseeable resolution.

All of these priorities presuppose dialogue. Because we control what we say, the United States ought not fear additional talks or supplementary avenues of discussion. Conversation is never concession if one is speaking the truth, advancing the national interest.

At all levels of human interaction, including the international strategic level, there exists a significant psychological dimension: Between nations, as between people, the stronger party has greater strategic confidence and thus capacity to take the first conciliatory steps when intransigent differences arise. Given the enormity of the stakes at issue, it behooves the United States to take advantage of the greater flexibility we possess to creatively explore possibilities for resolving the challenges posed by North Korea.

One has the sense that due to understandable frustrations relative to past North Korean actions, including cheating on international commitments, the White House has given exceedingly constrained options to our negotiators. But clear-headedness about the nature of the North Korean regime should not cloud the mind about devising techniques and processes to overcome differences.

While we speak directly to the North Korean delegation in Beijing at the Six Party Talks and have certain contacts with the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, there is clearly a problem of communication between our two governments. We have many under-utilized assets, not the least of which is our professional diplomatic corps. American professionalism is exemplified by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who has developed a constructive relationship with all of the parties to the Six Party Talks, including North Korea. The case for sending him or some other Presidential envoy whether it be the Secretary, the Deputy Secretary, or the President's father -- to Pyongyang to test the boundaries and push the implementation of the Joint Statement is compelling. The time may also be ripe to begin considering the propriety of establishing liaison offices in our two capitals to facilitate more consistent communication.

In particular, we should not be hesitant to begin considering the utility of "negotiat[ing] a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate separate forum," as envisioned by the Joint Statement and the last U.S.-ROK strategic dialogue. Taking the initiative to formally end the Korean War would underscore our peaceful intent in an unparalleled fashion, and remind the Korean people that the United States singularly and unequivocally supports the peaceful reunification of the Peninsula. There may be sequencing concerns but forging ahead on this aspect of the statement of principles may increase the willingness of the other parties to exert greater pressure to enforce its critical core the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and provide North Korea greater psychological as well as strategic comfort to accede to concerns of the outside world.

In addition to ensuring that our own diplomatic posture is as constructive as possible, there are certain substantive messages that bear emphasizing to the DPRK, which I raised during my conversations with officials in Pyongyang.

First, while it may not be intuitively obvious, it is in the DPRK's interest to reach a deal with the Bush Administration rather than waiting for a successor presidency. By way of example, I noted that at the beginning and end of the last century, two key deals reached by Democratic administrations on the League of Nations and a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty were struck down by a mistrustful Congress. Thus, just as some say that only Nixon could have gone to China, the tough-minded Bush Administration is best situated to sell a deal to a Congress that is still skeptical, given the breakdown of the previous 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea.

Second, we also should make it easier for North Korean leaders to visualize the benefits that could flow from North Korea's strategic reorientation. In this regard, I related to my North Korean hosts my observations from Mongolia, where I had visited beforehand. Even Mongolia, now several years into its own transition from Marxism to democratic capitalism, is outpacing North Korea. I was amazed to discover that the 12 to 15 thousand Mongolians who reside in the United States remit $150 to $250 million per year to their countrymen back home. Wholly apart from official aid, I encouraged DPRK officials to imagine the possibilities for family remittances and small-scale business investment latent in the million-and-a-half-strong Korean American community, many of whom have family ties to the North, should North Korea undertake a similar opening.

Finally, as a member of the people's body the Congress I underscored our desire to engage the North Korean people more robustly, to help build mutual understanding and goodwill. In this regard, educational, cultural, and sports exchanges appear particularly appropriate. At the same time that my hosts claimed to welcome this desire, it remains clear that hostility toward the United States still permeates official dogma in the DPRK, and is part of the formative ideological diet of every North Korean. Change on that front is likely to come only slowly, but is nonetheless worth our persistence.

Before taking your questions, permit me to remark briefly on North Korean human rights and refugee issues. The North Korean Human Rights Act was enacted 20 months ago. That law was designed to promote respect for human rights, transparency in the delivery of humanitarian aid, and protection for North Korean refugees. The motivations behind the legislation were solely humanitarian. It was not designed as a hidden strategy to provoke North Korean collapse, or to seek collateral advantage in ongoing strategic negotiations. Put simply, while each of us as individuals may not be, the North Korean Human Rights Act is agnostic about regime change, but emphatic about behavior change.

A primary aim of the Act is humanitarian burdensharing, particularly in terms of refugee assistance and resettlement. The United States has by far the largest refugee resettlement program in the world. It is also home to the largest Korean population outside of Northeast Asia. Consequently, it was perverse that the U.S. had not accepted any North Korean refugees for resettlement during the previous five years. Congress had grown impatient when, more than a year and a half after the law became effective, the United States still had not admitted any North Korean refugees. Thankfully, within the last two weeks, that situation was remedied by the arrival of the first six North Korean refugees to be resettled in the United States under the Act. This development, while long overdue, is welcome, and hopefully represents the first installment of a regularized process to assist credible numbers of some of the most vulnerable individuals in the world.

Permit me to close by again thanking the Institute for Corean-American Studies for hosting today's event.

This page last updated 5/30/2006 jdb

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