The United States has been heavily involved in Korean affairs since the end of World War II. Although our original goal of helping Korea regain her independence “in due course” was not supposed to entail a decades-long process, as events evolved, the United States became entangled in geopolitical obligations that have, so far, lasted for 60 years. At the core of that entanglement is the issue of how to deal with inter-Korean tensions. Resolving those tensions clearly would help Korea and—if it is done soundly—might even improve U.S. policy in the overall Asia-Pacific region.
The obvious problem the United States faces in Korea centers on North Korea’s nuclear-weapons agenda and how the Pyongyang government headed by Kim Jong-il manipulates that agenda. However, a spectrum of problems plagues U.S. relations with both Koreas.
The Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea (DPRK) has always feared and distrusted the United States because of our role in the Cold War and the Korean War and our attempts to leverage our alliance with the Republic of (South) Korea (ROK) against the DPRK. North Korea-U.S. relations worsened in the post-Cold War era, as Pyongyang reacted adversely to the George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations’ interventionism worldwide. This reinforced North Korea’s long-standing quest for self-reliance and her desire to strengthen her military deterrence by pursuing a nuclear option. Against the background of an ambiguous U.S.-DPRK dialogue during the Clinton years, which came close to the brink of war, Republican accusations of Democratic appeasement of the Pyongyang regime predisposed the current Bush administration toward a hard-line posture that was reciprocated by North Korea. The hawkish Bush doctrine and its controversial preemption paradigm that followed in the wake of September 11 intensified North Korean anxieties. President Bush’s inclusion of the DPRK into the “Axis of Evil” and his war against its Iraqi member sent ominous signals to Pyongyang. So, too, did Bush’s public “loathing” of Kim Jong-il, his reliance on neoconservative advisors who favored regime change in Pyongyang, and his enthusiastic support for Undersecretary of State John Bolton’s public characterization of Kim as a “tyrannical dictator” and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s description of North Korea as an “outpost of tyranny.”
In previous administrations, negative U.S.-DPRK relations were largely offset by positive U.S.-ROK relations, but the current administration’s relations with the Roh Moo-hyun government in Seoul have not been particularly good. Bush’s hawkish approach toward North Korea is more in tune with Roh’s political opponents in South Korea, whose roots are in previous authoritarian regimes. Even before Roh became president, that was clear in Bush’s strained relations with Kim Dae-jung, who set the initial tone for ROK progressive domestic politics and boldly promulgated the ROK’s “sunshine policy” toward North Korea—winning the Nobel Peace Prize in the process. The Bush administration’s expectations that Roh’s rival—Lee Hoi-chang—in the 2002 presidential campaign would prevail and its treatment of Lee’s team as a virtual government-in-waiting set the stage for continued strained relations with Seoul.
Those strains are manifest in Washington’s minimalist support for Roh’s engagement “policy for peace and prosperity.” The strains were evident in South Korean polls from 2004 to 2005 that indicated that more South Koreans believed the United States was a greater threat to Korean peace than North Korea was and that the United States was a greater obstacle to Korean unification than North Korea was. The U.S.-ROK alliance partners have also had to cope with additional pressures, including those resulting from American plans to reduce U.S. forces in Korea; South Korea’s unease over the impact that greater U.S.-Japan strategic cooperation regarding Taiwan will have on PRC-ROK relations; and President Roh’s increasing emphasis on South Korea’s independent role as a geopolitical “balancer” between China and the United States.
A rift is growing between the United States and South Korea over how best to deal with North Korea, which reflects South Korea’s very different understanding of North Korea’s identity. To all South Koreans, North Korea is the other half of their nation. Their beleaguered North Korean brethren are viewed sympathetically, which supports the Roh government’s efforts to engage North Korea in a constructive dialogue, extend a helping hand to foster creative socioeconomic reforms, and plan for a future in which North Koreans will incrementally rectify their flawed policies as they prepare for a peaceful reunion of the Korean nation-state. Although Washington formally supports Korean reunification, it is not a particularly avid supporter and does not embrace South Korea’s flexible agenda toward North Korea. The intensity of the U.S. hard line regarding North Korea’s nuclear policies and many neoconservative policymakers’ and advisors’ desire for “regime change” in Pyongyang help to widen the gap. The repeated attempts by U.S. and South Korean leaders to present a united front—such as the June 10, 2005, summit between Presidents Bush and Roh—are commendable from a diplomatic perspective, but, so far, they have not proved to be plausible or durable.
The role of China in inter-Korean affairs and the rise of China as a global economic and military power exacerbates those differences. The Bush administration’s Wilsonian emphasis on exporting democracy and freedom and its reluctance to entertain the possibility that China might legitimately challenge our role as the post-Cold War era’s “sole superpower” clearly cause tensions in Sino-U.S. relations. The PRC’s refusal to embrace Western-style political freedom, her rapid economic ascendancy, and her obvious geopolitical ambitions raise many concerns. Whether the United States is a unilateralist empire or plays a more benign role as a benevolent hegemon in global and regional affairs, Washington’s leadership style—especially under the post-September 11 Bush administration—raises concerns about Sino-American harmony. South Korea’s perception of the PRC-U.S. balance of power is infused with President Roh’s “balancer” vision, ROK unease about Japanese readiness to cooperate militarily with the United States to protect Taiwan, and South Korea’s positive expectations about China’s part in bringing about Korean reconciliation and reunification.
Consequently, leaders in Seoul tend to be skeptical of the soundness of American assumptions that China will help the United States curb North Korea’s nuclear agenda. As Koreans, they suspect they have a better grasp of what China really desires, and is willing to do, in guiding North Korea toward reunification. After all, a reunified Korea would still share a border with the PRC. And despite some recent Sino-Korean frictions about their ancient historical legacy, many South Koreans seem willing to explore returning to a more traditional Korean approach toward a Sinocentric regional system. The negative consequences of that shift for the existing U.S.-ROK alliance are fed by recurring waves of anti-American sentiment in South Korea that send odd signals of rapport between the two Koreas and reinforce China’s leadership role.
Against this complex background, there is no shortage of alternatives to the current U.S. policy being suggested by Korea specialists who are liberal-progressive critics of the Bush administration. Their views are well represented by the “Alliance of Scholars Concerned About Korea” (www.asck.org). Conservative critics of the Bush administration’s Korea policy argue that its neoconservative approach is really a hawkish brand of Wilsonian interventionism. There are, in addition, many conservative and centrist policy specialists who advocate a less hawkish U.S. approach to Korean affairs, such as the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy (www.realisticforeignpolicy.org), which promotes a far less interventionist U.S. role in the world.
The best way for the United States to resolve her dual set of problems with North and South Korea is to adopt a more pragmatic policy toward both the DPRK’s nuclear agenda and the ROK’s ambivalence about the soundness of U.S. relations with both China and North Korea. Unlike the Middle East, where Washington has been developing a “road map” for years, in Korea, the United States persists in avoiding bumps and potholes without a clear sense of where the road may lead. It is time for the United States to create a “road map” for Korea, too, working in conjunction with both Koreas and the other major powers involved in the six-party talks on the nuclear issue—namely, China, Japan, and Russia. Washington places too much emphasis on a geopolitical stability that is predicated on a divided Korea. It should learn from both Koreas and use their unification agendas to help foster a nuclear-weapons-free Korean peninsula, which will add to the stability of East Asia through bilateral and multilateral diplomatic negotiations to create a united Korean nation-state.
As part of this process, the United States and South Korea—in conjunction with the other major powers—would have ample opportunities to use economic incentives to induce change in the DPRK. The United States should abandon the hard-line notion of “regime change” in Pyongyang, replacing it with a moderate vision of regime transformation. This would be entirely consistent with South Korea’s former “sunshine policy” and her current “policy of peace and prosperity.” In order to pursue this approach, the United States would have to abandon her aversion to conducting high-level bilateral negotiations with the North Koreans. U.S. policy would be much improved if it followed the approach advocated by Seoul since the late 1980’s, when the ROK implemented its Nordpolitik—modeled on West Germany’s Ostpolitik—which encourages both Koreas to have bilateral relationships with the four major powers and creates a basis for expanded multilateral dialogues. Such multilateralism can serve as the basis of Korean coexistence, reconciliation, and reunification. If conducted as the South Koreans envision, the engagement processes between the two Koreas, and between each Korea and the four major powers, have enormous potential to instill a sense of innovation, making the North Koreans more amenable to compromise and accommodation.
As the United States emphasizes the benefits to both sides of a reunited Korean nation-state and becomes actively engaged in facilitating that goal, we would be much better positioned to negotiate an amicable resolution of the nuclear-weapons issue. North Korea could make concessions and open up to verification in exchange for U.S. support for the economic transformation of the DPRK and negotiations concerning a nonaggression commitment with the DPRK of the sort the two Koreas agreed to in 1992.
Furthermore, since Washington already assumes it needs to redeploy U.S. forces here and there around the world, why not use cuts in U.S. forces in South Korea as a means to persuade North Korea to make concessions? This approach would also help to persuade South Korea that a revamped U.S.-Korea security arrangement can be made beneficial to both Koreas as they once again become a unified state.
This approach could also enhance the prospects for geopolitical stability in Northeast Asia and beyond. Were the United States to pursue this option, it would send profound signals to China, Japan, and Russia. It is unlikely that any of them would oppose a policy of this sort. On the contrary, they are likely to want to become part of a broader multilateral process in support of the U.S. role in inter-Korean affairs. While that could, in part, be motivated by desires to prevent the United States from becoming too influential in shaping Korea’s future, it is best to perceive such multilateral participation as reflecting Chinese, Japanese, and Russian desires to use that process to attain their own goals and to cope with each country’s legacy of troubled policies regarding Korea. There is a small chance that China might try to use these circumstances to edge the United States out of a prominent role in Korean reunification in order to increase the PRC’s status at the United States’ geopolitical expense. On balance, this possibility is unlikely, because of the extremely high budgetary costs the PRC would have to bear to bring North Korea near the economic level of South Korea, enabling them to merge. China is more likely to want to work together with the United States and other major powers to facilitate Korean reconciliation and unification than to confront this financial risk.
Americans should recognize and accept the rationales behind all four major powers being engaged in a Korean reunification process. It would be very much in America’s national and regional interests to welcome as many constructive players as are willing to be engaged. This would provide the process with international credibility and expand the pool of engaged contributors to the transformation of North Korea, which is certain to be very expensive. By welcoming China, Japan, and Russia into the process, the United States would strengthen her ties with each of them. Clearly, the bilateral relationship that stands out in that regard is that between the United States and China. The more the PRC and the United States can work together to help Korea resolve her division—and thereby eliminate the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea—the more Sino-American relations overall are likely to be improved. That, in turn, will minimize—if not eliminate—the strain on the U.S.-ROK relationship that results from Seoul’s interactions with Beijing and President Roh’s use of the balancer paradigm.
The creation of a U.S. “road map” for Korean reunification has the potential for helping in a neighboring arena. The successful use of innovative engagement measures by which a divided nation benefits from external cooperation could motivate the divided Chinese nation to reunite the PRC and Taiwan through peaceful negotiations backed by the international community. Were the United States to facilitate the resolution of these two national-unification problems, fostering balanced regional harmony, she would substantially reduce her entangling geopolitical obligations and make serious progress toward American strategic independence.