Crisis On the Korean Peninsula

by Hyun Lee, Alex Doherty

What is North Korea trying to achieve by ratcheting up regional tension?

First published: 27 April, 2013 | Category: 

NLP's Alex Doherty spoke to Korean-American activist and broadcaster Hyun Lee on the continuing tensions on the Korean peninsula.

What do you believe the North Korean regime is trying to achieve with the bellicose statements we have seen in recent weeks?

North Korea has been pretty consistent in its demands towards the United States, at least for the last twenty years. Those demands are security assurance from the US – that it will not attack – and normalisation of relations. These have been the bedrock of their demands all throughout the six-party talks, all throughout the Geneva agreed framework negotiations. For the past twenty years that is what they have been demanding. In the past they have been willing to put all of their nuclear programme on the table for negotiation. I don't know that that is still on the table – they have said that it is not.

But basically what they have been asking for is a fundamental shift in US policy towards North Korea – not to be treated as an enemy state. Unfortunately the US has not been willing to reciprocate by hearing those demands.

Why do you think the US refuses to countenance normalisation?

There is a very interesting quote by Jeffrey Bader who is the architect of the Obama administration's policy on the Korean peninsula. He just came out with a book called Obama and China's Rise. I'm going to read you a quote from the book where he talks about US intentions vis-a-vis North Korea. He says:

“many of us believed that the most likely long term solution to the North's nuclear pursuits lay in the North's collapse and absorption into a South-led unified Korea. At the same time a strategy was still needed to slow down, freeze and degrade the North Korean program until history could take its course.”

I found this remarkable because he basically summarizes the past twenty years of US policy towards North Korea – which has been to delay North Korea's nuclear programme until the eventual collapse of the regime. For the past two decades the US has been developing regime collapse theories and scenarios regarding North Korea. It took different forms – it started with the Clinton administration where after the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe everyone expected that North Korea was on the verge of collapse and that it would not last very long. So the US made all sorts of agreements with North Korea, saying 'if you halt your nuclear programme we are going to give you light water reactors – we're going to provide shipments of fuel', but it didn't follow through because in Washington circles everyone expected that the regime would not survive for that much longer.

So are you saying that those agreements were made in bad faith or does this reflect splits in the US administration – some wanted to pursue a more negotiated path whilst others were focused on regime change?

That's an interesting question. Mike Chinoy, a former CNN correspondent who travelled to Pyongyang  and actually met with Kim Il Sung when Carter went to Pyongyang, wrote a book called Meltdown which chronicles the entire six-party talks and the competing agendas in Washington to define US strategy towards North Korea. He details how there are competing tendencies in Washington about which is the better course to pursue. I think there are those who promote engagement with North Korea with the end goal being opening up the country and liberalise its market. On the other hand there are those who are much more hawkish and want to bring down the regime even if it means the use of force. I think in the end though that both tendencies would agree that the end goal is either the collapse or a radical change in the regime in North Korea.  Under the Bush administration the United States took on a much more aggressive interventionist strategy vis-a-vis the north (this is when the National Endowment for Democracy actively started supporting citizens groups that were using human rights discourse to undermine the northern regime). When Obama came into office it was shortly after Kim Jong Il had a stroke and people in Seoul and Washington were saying that we need to prepare for imminent change after Kim Jong Il dies. So that's when they began developing Operation Plan 5029 which is a kind of unconventional military operation which imagines all these different scenarios under which the North might collapse and then outlines plans for how the military might respond to it. And that is what 'Strategic Patience' has been all about - which is waiting for the regime to collapse and preparing contingency plans for that eventuality. However North Korea has of course not collapsed and has so far defied all of these predictions from the outside world. As a result since 2011 (after Kim Jong Il's death) the US has actually been intensifying the military and political pressure on the North in many ways.  For example through the joint South Korean-American war games, increased militarisation on the Korean peninsula itself and through intensification of sanctions. Back in December North Korea actually said to the United States 'let’s talk – lets come back to the table to discuss security concerns' and the US did not respond. So it's clear from US actions so far that the US is not interested in talking about a peaceful resolution but more interested in really intensifying efforts to collapse the northern regime.

To what extent does the southern regime share the goals of the United States given the unknown impact the collapse of the North might have upon South Korea?

Well South Korean policy has varied significantly. So under Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-hyun we had the so-called 'sunshine policy' which led to a period of relatively good relations. During this period the 2000 June 15th declaration was announced which called for peaceful reunification of the two countries without the intervention of foreign powers. However everything changed with the election of Lee Myung-Bak in 2008. In Obama's first term the US allowed Lee Myung-Bak to effectively lead the US-South Korea alliance strategy towards the North and the relationship sharply deteriorated (this is the period of the Cheonan incident and the North's shelling of Yeonpyeong). Park Geun-Hye has now come into office pledging to pursue detente but it's unclear how she plans on doing this. She has this 'trust building' process which is her policy towards North Korea but her plan centres on the denuclearization of North Korea and the North has already said that is off the table. So I'm not really sure how she plans to find a way out of the crisis. There are people in Washington and South Korea who are saying she is going to be the one to lead us out of the crisis and that the US will follow suit but it's unclear to me how that will happen.

How serious do you think the risk of war is now and how likely do you think it is that war would be a deliberate initiative as opposed to it occurring due to misperception of the actions of the other side?

An agreement was signed between South Korea and the US a few weeks ago. It is called the “local provocation counter-provocations plan”. Basically the agreement says that should there be a skirmish in the West Sea – like the one that occurred on Yeonpyeong island (the West Sea is a site of many past incidents) –[then] this agreement gives South Korean field commanders on those islands in the West Sea the right to retaliate without receiving authorisation first from higher up the chain of command. This is very dangerous because the South Korean defence ministry has already stated that they reserve the right of asymmetric retaliation (meaning should there be a provocation from the North they will retaliate not only against the source of the provocation but all of its supporting forces and infrastructure). So this agreements really increases the risk of a local skirmish turning into all out war. So I think that this is a very worrisome situation – if there is an outbreak of fighting there is a high chance it will start in the West Sea.

And you don't believe that North Korea is necessarily engaging in mere brinkmanship?

Last July the foreign ministry in North Korea made an announcement saying 'we have reviewed the past twenty years of our negotiations with the US we have come to the conclusion that it's not working.' The principle of 'action for action' that was agreed on through the six-party talks (meaning simultaneous actions on both sides) is out the window, they don't think it's working anymore and they have stated that the US must act first to show that it is sincere about fundamentally changing its policy towards North, otherwise they have stated that they are preparing for war  In August Kim Jong Un gave a speech at a banquet with high level military officials saying 'our patience’ – referring to Obama's 'strategic patience' – ‘has limits’, and the entire nation should prepare for war. Shortly after this the official website of the North had a flashing banner on the site saying 'nationwide preparation for the great war of national reunification'. Now there are some things that the North has done recently that seems qualitatively different from similar statements they have made in the past. For example in March when they declared the nullification of the armistice – many people pointed out that they have made similar statements in the past. However one thing that is different though is that in the past when the nullification of the armistice was declared – it always came from the military armistice commission at the DMZ [Demilitarised Zone]. This is the first time it actually came from the supreme command headquarters of the army. this means it's coming from Kim Jong Un himself – this is unprecedented.

Now it's unclear without being on the ground the extent of the North's preparations for war. One thing I will say is that the North has been very consistent in terms of following through on their declarations – when they said that they were going to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty – they did it. When they said 'we are going to test a nuclear weapon' – they did it. When they said they would launch a satellite saying 'we don't care what anyone says'-  again they did it. So I think there's a lot of people who downplay North Korea's threats saying 'we've seen this before, this is more of the same of what we've seen from North Korea' but I think that this may be a mistake.

In the media here North Korea's missile program and atomic weapons programme is taken as self-evidently illegitimate – what is your view?

Someone who has written really eloquently on this issue is Gregory Elich who makes some compelling points regarding the hypocrisy of US condemnation of North Korea's missile and atomic  programmes. He points to Israel, Pakistan and India – also non-signatories to the NPT – who  have routinely performed nuclear tests and are never the targets of condemnation from the West. The only difference between them and North Korea regarding this matter is that they are US allies and North Korea is not. He points out that last April, when North Korea first attempted to launch a satellite into orbit, India and Pakistan also tested ballistic missiles and nobody made a fuss about these launches whilst North Korea was the subject of much condemnation. He also talks about how right after North Korea's satellite launch India also carried out a ballistic missile test in January and again not a word from the West. So there seems to be a double standard. Of course North Korea should abide by international standards but so should everyone else.

How do you see a way forward out of the current impasse?

I belong to a coalition called 'The National Campaign to End the Korean War'. We have been advocating for reengagement and a peace process to formally end the war. We would like to see to see the signing of  a peace treaty and with this being the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice we feel that this is a critical time for us to sign a peace treaty. A lot of people who are critical of our position like to argue that the US has no interest in doing so because a peace treaty would mean a fundamental change in US posture in the region – since if there's peace treaty there's no reason for the US to maintain troops in South Korea. But there are two very important historical precedents for this. At the end of both previous administrations (Clinton and Bush) the two administrations came to the realisation, after many years of negotiation with North Korea, that the best course vis-a-vis North Korea is normalisation. So in 2000 at the end of the Clinton administration State Secretary Madelaine Albright went to Pyongyang and this led to the joint communique whereby North Korea promised to halt its nuclear programme in exchange for security assurances and normal relations and Clinton pledged ‘yes, we are willing to do that’. Of course that was taken off the table when Bush came into office, but at the end of his administration in 2008 he too came to the same conclusion and State Secretary Rice brokered a deal where the US took North Korea off the state sponsored terrorism list and agreed to formally end the Korean War in exchange for North Korea halting its nuclear programme. Unfortunately both administrations ran out of time to implement these agreements and every time a new administration took office negotiations went back to stage one. So I think that state Secretary Kerry can change this pattern by learning the lessons of the past administrations earlier on in this administration and I think he can broker a peace process that will move us out of this current crisis. But I hope he does it soon as we may be running out of time.

Hyun Lee is a member of Nodutdol, a Korean American social justice organization in New York City, as well as the U.S.-based Working Group for Peace and Demilitarization in Asia and the Pacific.  She also co-produces Asia Pacific Forum - a weekly radio show on culture and politics related to Asia and the Asian diaspora.

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?