On the Record

Korea: A Geopolitical Overview

Michael H. Armacost

I am delighted to be here with you today. It is always a joy to have an excuse to visit Kyoto, and the subject of this conference–The Future of Korea–has occupied many of my waking hours for more than 30 years. It is a timely moment to discuss it.

I was asked to speak about where we are today on the Korean issue with geopolitical factors especially in mind. I take that to mean where do relations between the two Koreas stand and how are they affected by the policies of the great powers and the interrelationships among them. It is a subject worthy of our attention, though one that has fallen somewhat below the radar screen in Washington where policymakers are understandably preoccupied with the establishment and management of a new grand coalition directed against international terrorists and those who extend them support or refuge.

During the cold war, Korea was a local theater in a global contest between East and West. The great powers chose sides on the peninsula. The United States and Japan developed close links with the South; Russia and China allied themselves to the North. The North-South competition seemed a zero-sum game; any advantage achieved by one side was perceived as a danger by the other. From the 1940’s until last year, relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, except for brief intervals, were marked by deep antagonism and mutual distrust. The preeminent objective of South Korea–and I dare say of America–was to deter another war on the peninsula.
Reducing tensions was a proximate aim; reunification seemed at best a distant dream.

When the Cold War ended, strategic realities in Northeast Asia changed rapidly. Indeed these changes had been foreshadowed by some “melting of the Korean glacier” even before the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Warsaw Pact collapsed, and the Berlin Wall came down. In the late 1980’s, Moscow and Beijing terminated long-standing assistance programs to Pyongyang, and explored commercial and diplomatic ties with Seoul. Japan made a clumsy and abortive attempt to normalize relations with North Korea. And the United States, prodded by South Korea’s President No Tae-u to help draw Pyongyang out of its isolation, began to initiate tentative exchanges with the North.

These adjustments in the interplay of the great powers on the peninsula had at least two major consequences: (1) they reinforced the shift in the balance of power on the peninsula in Seoul’s favor; and (2) by further isolating the North and hastening its economic decline, they may have spurred its determination to acquire nuclear weapons as an “equalizer” against the growing conventional power of South Korea and as a diplomatic lever with which to pry concessions out of the United States. For its part, the U.S. discovered that the post-Cold War world, however different, was potentially no less dangerous. In 1993-94, it neglected its relations with Japan, China and South Korea only to discover that it could muster no effective strategy for responding to North Korea’s nuclear program without the support of North Korea’s neighbors. Bill Perry later contended that we came within an eye-lash of war with North Korea in 1994. Yet neither Japan, Russia, nor China was prepared to back economic sanctions against Pyongyang, let alone a military strike. They all pressed the U.S. to negotiate with the North about its nuclear program without putting much diplomatic leverage in our hands. Thus, if North Korea’s bid for “nukes” raised the risk of war, it also precipitated arms control negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, Germany’s unexpectedly swift and peaceful reunification in 1992 inspired high hopes that Korea might soon follow suit. As chronic economic problems accumulated in the North, many speculated that the door to unity in Korea, as in Germany, would be opened by the collapse of another communist regime. Such speculation was especially acute following the death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994. But North Korea did not, of course, collapse. And as the financial, social, and political costs to West Germany of integrating the East into its economy became clear, South Korean authorities entertained second thoughts about the desirability of early unification, and chose to promote a more gradual process of North-South reconciliation. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 reinforced that choice.

Kim Dae-Jung’s “sunshine policy” reflected that conclusion. It foresaw a perpetuation of the political status quo–i.e., two Korean states–for some time while “separating economics from politics” in pursuit of openings to Pyongyang. If this strategy worked, it would forestall North Korea’s collapse, and put off reunification by conferring legitimacy on the North Korean government, shoring up its economy, and encouraging a protracted period of peaceful coexistence between Seoul and Pyongyang.

The historic summit meeting between Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang in June 2000 was the highwater mark–at least to date–of this policy. Kim Jong-Il was transformed from the bizarre caricature of his Western press notices into a media-savvy, well informed leader. The atmospherics of North-South relations underwent an electrifying change. Armed incursions in the DMZ ceased. The level of official rhetorical invective exchanged between Pyongyang and Seoul diminished sharply. Ministerial-level exchanges proliferated. Cooperative projects of potential practical value swiftly surfaced, including the establishment of a North-South rail link through the DMZ, a new industrial zone at Kaesong, and the Mount Kumgang tourist venture. The prospect of family reunions–even if limited in scale and time–prompted rejoicing on both sides of the DMZ. Kim Dae-Jung even reported that the North Korean leader had acknowledged he no longer opposed the presence of U.S. troops in the South–a remarkable proposition which was only obliquely confirmed by others. By any comparative standard, North-South tensions were substantially reduced, and hopes for genuine reconciliation were high.

Regrettably, progress stalled, and hopes have dimmed over the past year or so. Kim Il-Sung has yet to commit to a date for a reciprocal visit to South Korea. Ministerial meetings have been regularly postponed, and when held have yielded scant results. The most recently scheduled family reunions were cancelled. The North-South rail line remains unconnected; the future of the Kaesong industrial zone is still problematic. Diplomatic prospects on the North-South front, in short, are marked by lingering hopes, and troubling uncertainties.

It is worth reexamining the incentives that prompted North Korea to engage South Korea in the spring of 2000. While one can only speculate about the motivations of North Korean diplomacy, a plausible explanation for Kim Jong-Il’s response to South Korean overtures rests on these premises:

— By the spring of 2000, Kim Jong-Il’s succession was sufficiently advanced, and his authority sufficiently consolidated that he could overcome whatever domestic opposition there was to a summit meeting with Kim Dae-Jung.

— At the same time, economic conditions in the North were so grim that large-scale external assistance was desperately needed. The North’s people were starving; its manufacturing base was crumbling; its trade was virtually non-existent. And these developments must surely have begun to erode North Korean military readiness, since no modern army can function without food and fuel, both of which were in short supply.

— Neither the U.S. nor Japan were perceived as likely to provide much tangible aid to the North, beyond periodic food shipments. Even if the U.S. hastened the dismantling of economic sanctions, few American firms were poised to invest resources in a country whose regulatory system was so arbitrary and opaque, and whose officials possessed such a primitive understanding of markets. Japan, meanwhile, angered by Pyongyang’s launch of a missile over its territory without prior notification, and insistent upon an accounting for North Korea’s past abductions of its citizens, was under no domestic pressure to move forward with the North. Tokyo’s own severe economic problems may have provided a disincentive to new diplomatic initiatives toward North Korea since they would inevitably provoke discussions of sizable “reparations.”

— Although North Korea had achieved striking success in normalizing relations with a number of European and Asian countries in 1999 and 2000, none of its new diplomatic interlocutors displayed much willingness to offer economic help beyond food aid, which barely kept the North afloat.

— With these considerations in mind, Pyongyang evidently concluded that neither Washington nor Tokyo, nor others were likely to be a ready source of cash, and the consistent thread running through North Korean diplomacy remained its relentless demand: “Show me the money!”

— By such a process of elimination, North Korea must have felt obliged to look to Seoul for help. And why not? Kim Dae-Jung had clung steadfastly to his “sunshine policy” despite growing domestic criticism. Assistance supplied by South Korean industrialists had come without apparent strings. Kim Dae-Jung, limited to one term as President, had only a couple of years left in office; and no one on the South Korean political horizon seemed likely to adopt as forthcoming a stance toward the North as he. And an “opening” to the South might conceivably prompt Seoul’s allies to follow its lead in supplying Pyongyang with economic and political help.

The surprising feature of this analysis is that most of the key suppositions are as valid today as they were eighteen months ago. No major visible challenge to Kim Jong-Il’s authority has surfaced. North Korea’s economic prospects remain grim. The Bush Administration appears more hard-nosed and less forthcoming in its approach to Pyongyang than its predecessor. Japan’s capacity to provide assistance has diminished with its own economic fortunes. Kim Dae-Jung has even less time left in office, and domestic criticism of his “sunshine policy” has intensified.

Why, under these circumstances, has North Korea allowed the opportunity for substantive progress in it relations with South Korea to languish? Is it a reflection of renewed domestic opposition, perhaps from the North Korean military, to its engagement with the South? Disappointment with the scope of South Korean economic concessions? Reluctance to accommodate a diplomatic partner now perceived as a “lame duck?” Discomfort with U.S. efforts to encourage more reciprocity and verification in North-South arrangements? A natural tendency to postpone tough choices in favor of a diplomatic maneuvering to bolster the support of friends or drive wedges between foes? All of the above?

I don’t know which of these considerations is decisive. Perhaps most or even all play a role. Whatever the calculations of Kim Jong-Il, it seems to me that one conclusion is inescapable: Kim Jong-Il’s government has been willing to take few risks, beyond the decision to host the summit meeting itself, in order to build a new relationship with the South. Pyongyang seems willing to engage Seoul and other capitals only on its own terms, and those terms seem to rule out ventures that expose North Korean society to more than limited and superficial contacts with the outside world. That is deeply disappointing, if not necessarily surprising.

Nor is the current picture brighter when one looks at the recent record of U.S. engagement with North Korea. Bill Perry managed to restore a measure of coherence on policy toward North Korea during the final years of the Clinton Administration. He certainly improved the quality of policy consultations between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo. And he laid out to Pyongyang in May 1999, a comprehensive offer of a cooperative U.S.-North Korean future in exchange for verifiable arms reductions. The Administration hoped for (1) a complete and verifiable cessation of all testing, development and deployment of missiles beyond 300 kilometers, (2) the termination of export sales of such missiles and equipment and the technology associated with them, and (3) reliable assurances that the DPRK had ended its nuclear weapons program.

In return, the U.S. was prepared to normalize relations with the North, and to pursue a step-by-step reciprocal process of reducing pressures “the DPRK perceived as threatening.” Perry also conveyed to North Korean officials the prospect of considerably tougher measures in the event Pyongyang spurned a conciliatory approach. Kim Jong-Il evidently found this proposal difficult to digest, and nearly a year and a half passed before he dispatched First Vice Chairman Jo Myong Rok to Washington to express his willingness to move North Korea’s bilateral relations with the U.S. “in a new direction” that was ” . . .free from past enmities.”

Secretary of State Albright’s hasty visit to Pyongyang in October 2000 permitted further exploration of a deal on missiles. But the U.S. was only weeks away from a bitterly fought presidential election which the Democrats lost by a narrow margin. Time ran out on this venture, though not without reinforcing the anxieties of some leading Republicans that President Clinton had been engaged in a last minute “legacy building” exercise that may have conveyed misleading signals to the North. The Bush Administration was left with the outlines of a deal from which crucial details were missing.

Uneasy about the legacy it inherited, the new Administration was eager to differentiate its approach from that of its predecessor, and initiated almost immediately a thorough review of existing policy and alternatives to it. The review was incomplete when Kim Dae-Jung came to visit last March. A communiqué President Kim had signed with Vladamir Putin the week before expressing doubts about missile defenses–a favored project of the new Administration–made a poor impression in Washington, and the visit produced prickly exchanges. Instead of an unconditional endorsement of the “sunshine policy,” Kim received veiled lectures about the unreliability of North Korean promises. An about-face in public statements made by Secretary of State Powell suggested unresolved differences among key officials. Washington and Seoul were off to a rough start.

The differences among senior people in the new Administration over Korea policy were real. I suspect they persist. Many conservatives regarded the Nuclear Framework Agreement as laced with “moral hazard.” They harbored a visceral distaste for what they considered North Korea’s “blackmail” diplomacy. Many hoped for North Korea’s collapse, and doubted that much of enduring value could be negotiated with it until fundamental political changes had occurred in Pyongyang.

Whatever the merits of these judgments, they left the U.S. without a viable approach. An effective U.S. strategy in Korea requires close policy coordination with Seoul. And Kim Dae-Jung was clearly eager for Washington to reengage with Pyongyang, and was not inclined to insist on as strict a standard of reciprocity as some members of the new Administration preferred.

With the completion of its policy review in late spring, the President announced his readiness to commence talks with the North, “anytime, any place, and without conditions.” The Administration did, however, signal its desire to start the discussions with the North at a lower level than had been recently utilized by President Clinton, a determination to add conventional arms control to the U.S.-North Korean agenda, and a disposition not “to trust but verify” but “to distrust and verify.” Pyongyang displayed little interest in this approach, and serious talks have not resumed.

If North-South talks and U.S.-DPRK negotiations have faltered, in other respects, the fundamentals of the situation in Korea have not changed much.

— Happily, the danger of war on the peninsula continues to recede. The reasons are clear. Since the 1970’s, the balance of power on the peninsula has shifted dramatically against North Korea. With more than twice its population, Seoul’s economy is now at least 25 times as large as Pyongyang’s. While devoting a declining percentage of its GDP to defense, the South is able to finance larger annual increases in its defense budget than the North can muster. This trend has obviously been reinforced by the unprecedented contraction in North Korea’s economy over the past decade. Thus, the North is in no condition to initiate a conflict; the South has no interest in doing so. Beyond this, whatever differences there may be among the great powers of East Asia on Korean issues–and there are some–Tokyo, Beijing, and Moscow all share with the U.S. an interest in avoiding a renewal of conflict or a proliferation of nuclear weapons on the peninsula; all desire peaceful coexistence between North and South. The United States continues to play a balancing role in Korea, and powerful American forces remain deployed north of Seoul. And, of course, relations between North and South have improved.

— Concerns about nuclear proliferation in Korea persist. But the 1994 Nuclear Framework Agreement managed to freeze North Korea’s nuclear activities, and promises the eventual dismantling of the North’s nuclear facilities. KEDO provides an additional and significant point of contact for North and South Korean officials. That Pyongyang may have hidden away a small cache of weapons or weapons-grade material is, to be sure, a continuing worry. It has been compounded by evidence of the North’s interest in developing and testing long-range ballistic missiles–scarcely an efficient means of delivering conventional explosives. But in that connection, the current moratorium on further North Korean testing at least defers the problem, if it does not resolve it.

— At one time, North Korea was indisputably a sponsor of terrorism. In 1983, its agents blew up a delegation of South Koreans in Myanmar, killing, among others, several cabinet members. In 1987, its culpability in downing a South Korean airliner was clear. The Japanese government is persuaded that Pyongyang kidnapped Japanese minors and put them into terrorist training schools. More recently, North Korea’s government has been seeking to shed the label of “state sponsor” of terrorism. As far as one can tell, it has not been involved in terrorist acts for some years. Only a matter of months ago, the U.S. was engaged in negotiations anticipating the removal of Pyongyang from the State Department’s terrorism list. The negotiations, however, did not reach a conclusion. It remains to be seen whether the events of September 11th may open new possibilities in that regard. The North Koreans did issue a prompt, if perfunctory condemnation of the attacks; more recently Pyongyang’s statements have concentrated on criticizing the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan. For Washington, the effort to combat international terrorism has become virtually a new organizing principle for foreign policy. Equivocation about the issue from Pyongyang only adds complications to an already difficult relationship.

— Several years ago outsiders worried with good reason about humanitarian catastrophes in North Korea which might spark civil disorder, massive immigration, and major questions about who controlled North Korea’s nuclear materials. Such concerns continue, though the North Korean government has proven to be more durable than many expected, and the current harvest looks promising. Contingency planning efforts, moreover, have been devoted to these possibilities, and I would judge that South Korea and its neighbors would be better prepared to cope with a humanitarian crisis now than they were just a few years ago.

To sum up, prospects for breakthroughs in North-South talks and North Korean-U.S. talks have dimmed for the moment; in most other respects, the situation in Korea has not changed fundamentally. If anything, the atmospherics are better, and tensions are down.

The prospect of presidential elections in December 2002 lend urgency to Kim Dae-Jung’s desire for a breakthrough with the North. Realistically, a “lame duck” administration facing acute economic difficulties, a parliamentary opposition demanding reciprocal concessions from Pyongyang, and allies distracted by other foreign and domestic preoccupations is less well positioned to induce concessions from the North, though a “waiting game” is not without risks for Pyongyang either.

Are the great powers likely to take initiatives to move things off dead center?

— China may have the best combination of motive and means. It has supplied North Korea with substantial economic and political support for some years. Clearly it is eager to avoid major instability on its border. It has obvious incentives to persuade Pyongyang to adopt reforms that would make its government less dependent for its subsistence on outside aid, and it has consistently sought to spur market-oriented reforms in the North. Improvements in North-South and U.S.-North Korean relations, moreover, would perhaps reduce the urgency with which the Bush Administration has sought to deploy ballistic missile defenses which Beijing opposes.

Kim Jong-Il’s recent trips to China suggest that he is intrigued by the Chinese model for kick-starting the North Korean economy. He must surely be impressed by Beijing’s success in advancing economic growth while perpetuating communist party rule. Yet it is doubtful that the Chinese model is replicable in the North. It has no large internal market, cannot approach self-sufficiency in supplying its own food, and at least heretofore has been reluctant to exploit its major comparative advantage–a large, cheap and reasonably well educated labor force. On the contrary, Pyongyang has overpriced labor for political purposes. Even the political advantages of the Chinese political model may be suspect, since the North Koreans do not, in fact, have a “ruling party,” rather, the regime amounts to a family dynasty backed by the military. Still, Chinese pressure for reform is welcome, as is its presumed encouragement of North Korea’s moratorium on missile testing and perhaps for a broader “missile deal” with the U.S.

— Japan has a stake in playing a more active role on Korean issues. North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program are potentially threatening. At a time when other powers are active on Korean issues–as Russia and China have been–Tokyo does not wish to be sidelined. Equally important, Tokyo has some obvious cards to play when the time is ripe.
A normalization of Tokyo’s relations with North Korea could bring Pyongyang considerable economic aid, expanded trade, private investment flows, additional remittances from North Korean sympathizers living in Japan, and an end to Tokyo’s opposition to North Korean membership in international financial institutions. At the moment, however, Tokyo appears preoccupied with other pressing issues at home and abroad.

— For the Russians, Korea represents a foreign policy opportunity. President Putin is eager to utilize diplomatic dexterity to offset the declining weight of Russia’s military and economic capabilities, and Korea provides an attractive arena for his efforts. It will be easier to claim a place at the table, however, than to extend Russian influence much beyond a supporting role.

What, you might ask, should the United States be doing now? Obviously we intend to keep our guard up. The North may be relatively weaker, but its conduct is often unpredictable. Deterrence remains a prime U.S. interest, and the appropriate posture for us is wary, but confident vigilance.

Getting North-South talks back on a productive path remains central; it is there that the key accommodations must be struck if peaceful coexistence is to be put on a secure and durable basis. It will not be an easy task. In both 1972 and 1991, North-South detente proved short-lived. Contemporary evidence suggests, moreover, that the North Koreans are irresistibly tempted to put their relations with South Korea on the back-burner as opportunities for securing help from others present themselves. A basic challenge for U.S. diplomacy is to find ways of inducing Pyongyang to come to terms with Seoul.

At the same time, special efforts are warranted to strengthen U.S. ties with South Korea. There has been some erosion in the bilateral relationship since the June 2000 summit. In the heady atmosphere surrounding that meeting, some South Koreans raised questions about the long-term need for our alliance, suggested cuts in our military deployments, and expressed doubts about the equity of our Status of Forces Agreement. Relations between our professional military establishments have become a bit more distant and standoffish. Some South Koreans are inclined to attribute current economic difficulties to the carnage in America’s technology market, and the U.S. economic slow-down. Kim Dae-Jung and President Bush got off to a poor start last March, and while that damage has been essentially repaired, the relationship still appears marked by a certain reserve. Diplomacy is often like “gardening,” and I would say that South Korea is a candidate for major cultivation.

Beyond this, the U.S. needs to strengthen trilateral cooperation between South Korea, Japan, and the United States with respect to policy toward North Korea. The work of the Trilateral Coordination Group (TGOG) suffered a bit during the transition from the Clinton to the Bush Administration, and the recent difficulties in Japan’s relationship with Seoul have not helped. We need to fix this.

We should continue to look for openings for a resumption of the U.S.-North Korean dialogue. If opportunities present themselves for exploring new possibilities for cooperation with North Korea on an anti-terrorist agenda–particularly curbs on its missile exports to the Middle East and Persian Gulf–we should not be shy in pursuing them.

And as our relations with both Moscow and Beijing evolve, we should keep the Korean issue on our agenda for discussion with both. Each has accorded priority to cultivating Kim Jong-Il, as well as Seoul. Vis-a-vis North Korea, our interests substantially converge. Each may be able and willing to reinforce signals that we choose to send to Pyongyang.

This is not a hugely ambitious agenda. Nor am I especially optimistic that dramatic changes are in the offing. Timing is important. I suspect the best we can do at this time is to preserve the strength of our position on the peninsula; cultivate our links with Seoul; avoid putting brakes on any efforts Kim Dae-Jung may make to get North-South talks back on track; revitalize trilateral consultations with South Korea and Japan; and maintain a posture of watchful waiting vis-a-vis North Korea. In this latter respect, we should proceed calmly, without acrimony or threats, while remaining alert to opportunities. If we are vigilant and patient, I have no doubt that sooner or later new opportunities will arise to move us from wary deterrence toward a more serious and promising process of tension reduction and peaceful coexistence. Surely that must be our hope.