SPECIAL REPORT: The Challenge of North Korea

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May 16, 2003

The Challenge of North Korea

This special report presents a collection of statements on the ethical aspects of the foreign policy challenges presented by North Korea, with links to full-length texts where available. The statements were made by leading thinkers in Japan-Korea area studies and/or international affairs, all of whom have appeared recently at Carnegie Council events or contributed to our publications. The excerpted passages are clustered beneath the following areas:

Rules of Engaging States That Defy International Law

President Bush set his policy toward North Korea in his 1/29/02 State of the Union Address:

North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens. . . . States like these [North Korea, Iran, and Iraq], and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.

Bush is of course referring to the threat posed by North Korea's missiles and uranium-enrichment program -- a threat that worsened in late 2002, when the Pyongyang government not only admitted to having a uranium-enrichment program but also threatened to reactivate a nuclear reactor producing plutonium and to start reprocessing the plutonium, while expelling international inspectors.

In addition, the Bush administration has made it clear that it is extremely reluctant to hold direct, bilateral talks with the North Koreans on the grounds that this would simply be a reward for "bad behavior" -- given that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il egregiously breached a comprehensive agreement reached with the United States in 1994 through such talks. Some members of the Bush team are inclined to believe that the world will have to live with a nuclear North Korea, while others, led by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney, advocate taking tougher measures -- including UN condemnation, economic sanctions, and possibly even military action -- in an effort to force North Korea to renounce (once again) nuclear weapons development.

Meanwhile, however, two of America's regional allies, South Korea and Japan -- and, increasingly, China -- have adopted an active policy of engagement to try to win Pyongyang round to a more compliant line. South Korea's president, Roh Moo Hyun, would like to offer concessions to figure out North Korea's price for ending its nuclear program. Several American Korea experts agree that engagement -- as encapsulated by former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy -- is more likely to bring about the desired result of disarmament. As former defense secretary William Perry put it, "The proposed policy of isolation and containment will not work. It can hardly isolate North Korea more than they are already isolated." He went on to warn that with Pyongyang's proliferation record, North Korean plutonium could find its way into the hands of terrorists.*

What is the right way to handle a country with a reputation for threatening other countries with weapons of mass destruction and of violating international agreements? Here are some comments and ideas:

WILLIAM KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: I'm all for the Bush Doctrine; I'm not at all backing away from the broader implications. We have to look at the world in a hardheaded way and say, "Where do you have this kind of brutal dictator, way beyond the normal freedom-of-press-depriving/no-elections type, where do you have this kind of tyrant, where do you have the fanatical obsession with weapons of mass destruction, and where do you have the history of aggression?" There are really rather few places in the world. I mean, once you get beyond Iraq and North Korea, you don't have too many other candidates for this level of concern and, therefore, for this level of American action. From his remarks at a 3/5/03 Carnegie Council breakfast (go to transcript).

ANTHONY LAKE, former national security advisor to President Clinton: South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung [was] right in pursuing his so-called Sunshine Policy. I also believe that American policymakers will come back to supporting Kim's approach as soon as they realize that the point is not to prop up North Korea but to forge stronger ties between North and South. In the meantime, there is no doubt in my mind that the North Koreans will go on doing what they have been doing all along, which is using missiles for blackmail, trying to make us twitch. And here the Bush administration is right by trying to appear a little less concerned about this, or a little less willing to pay the blackmail, although in the end I think you almost inevitably have to comply to some degree. We have little choice but to walk the line between supporting the Sunshine Policy and maintaining deterrence. Over the last year, more North Korean troops appeared on the border than did a year ago. And there are no signs, as a result of the Sunshine Policy, of a reduction in actual military tensions between North and South. From his remarks at a 1/21/01 Carnegie Council program (go to transcript).

DONALD GREGG, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea : The North Koreans told Don Oberdorfer and me [when we were visting them] in November of last year, "We will answer all of your nuclear concerns if you will give us a non-aggression treaty of some sort." We stopped off in Seoul on the way back and checked that out with the South Koreans. They were interested in it, feeling that a non-aggression treaty is much easier to deal with than a peace treaty, which involves the status of American forces. We bullied our way into the White House, saying, "The North Koreans want to talk, and if we'll talk, they will stop their nuclear programs." The answer was, "No, we won't do that. That would be rewarding bad behavior." And that is still, more or less, where it stands at this point. I testified before the Senate in early February. I warned that there is a "perfect storm" brewing on the Korean Peninsula which is turning the South Korean-American alliance on its head, and which can also create a nuclear power in North Korea. I was impressed by the bipartisan feeling between Senators Lugar and Biden. The Senate felt that we need to figure out how to start talking to the North Koreans, so I am hopeful. But the time remaining before the North Koreans commit overtly to becoming a nuclear power is limited, and they will do so, as I have warned the White House. Only direct American talks will head that off. From his remarks at a 4/1/03 Carnegie Council breakfast (go to transcript).

RICHARD BETTS, Columbia University: What of the unique threat posed by the rogue states' weapons of mass destruction, likely to grow more potent with time, and to function as something of an equalizer? This indeed is a worrisome difference from [Hitler's policy of aggression in] the 1930s -- but it is not different from the Cold War. Antagonistic great powers survived more than four decades of confrontation in the shadow of nuclear war on a vastly more destructive scale. . . . Is the Cold War record irrelevant? Despite common assertions in recent years that Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il are crazy and undeterrable, evidence has yet to demonstrate this. Yes, rogue state leaders have been risk-prone and have frequently miscalculated. But North Korea and Iraq attacked their neighbors in 1950, 1980, and 1990 only when the United States failed to deter them. Indeed, Washington gave them a green light in all three cases. In 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson's speech to the National Press Club excluded South Korea from the U.S. defense perimeter in Asia six months before North Korea struck. . . . North Korea has not repeated the mistake of 1950 in the fifty years since the Korean War ended and an American trip wire was institutionalized along the 38th parallel. From "The Ethics of the Preemptive Use of Force" in Ethics & International Affairs, Vol. 17.1 [Spring 2003] (go to journal roundtable).

North Korea-Japan Reconciliation as a Pre-condition for Security

Some observers and analysts of East Asia argue that the challenges posed by North Korea cannot be surmounted without addressing the role of history in shaping regional politics. Technically, Japan is still at war with North Korea (it normalized relations with the South in 1965 and with China in 1978). Last September, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met with his counterpart, Kim Jong Il, in hopes of paving the way towards normalization. Koizumi “humbly” expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for Korean suffering caused by thirty-five years of Japanese colonial occupation. But this message was overshadowed by Kim Jong ll’s revelation that North Korea had abducted Japanese nationals in the late 1970s and early 1980s to serve as spies – something that North Korea had previously denied. This created an enormous furor in Japan, with the result that prospects for normalization are now at a standstill.

There are very few norms for addressing the “history issue” in international affairs. Traditionally, international relations specialists have seen historical animosities between nations as secondary to their security and economic interests. When nations are compelled to cooperate, such sentiments tend to dissipate, these scholars argue. On the other hand, there is a growing school of thought that history should be seen as a powerful independent force that influences politics. In the case of Japan and North Korea, it is the inability of these two nations to come to terms with historical grievances – now on both sides – that continues to undermine efforts to resolve the security dilemma posed by North Korea’s nuclear program.**

The so-called history problem is not on any foreign policy agenda; but should it be? Should the United States be encouraging Japan to seek conciliation with its neighbors in tandem with discussions on regional security? And what happens in cases of complicated historical legacies, such as has occurred between Japan and North Korea? Do present grievances outweigh those of the past? Here are some comments and ideas:

LILI COLE, Carnegie Council: North Korea's apology over the abductees is a textbook example of what apologies should not be: made by the very person who launched the abduction policy, not the supreme state leader, and unaccompanied by any commitment to political and institutional change. For its part, Japan has made only faltering attempts to acknowledge its own past failings. [Prime Minister Koizumi may have delivered an apology at last September's historic meeting]; but this is belied by his continued visits to the Yasukuni shrine, where war criminals are honored, along with glacial progress (and even backsliding) toward revising Japanese history textbooks to include an account of Japanese military aggression. From "Instead of Reconciliation, A Widening Gulf," March/April 2003 InPrint (go to article).

DONALD GREGG, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea : I very much admired Prime Minister Koizumi's guts in going to North Korea, but I thought that Japan's reaction to Kim Jong Il's confession was hysterical, not historical. I understand how outrageous it is to have somebody admit, "Yes, we've kidnapped your people"; but I wish there had been a little effort to tone it down because I think the confession on the part of Kim Jong Il was an effort to step forward with Japan. From his remarks at a 4/1/03 Carnegie Council breakfast (go to transcript).

SCOTT SNYDER, Asia Foundation in Seoul (author of Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior): The real reason why the historic meeting [between Prime Minister Koizumi and Kim Jong Il] did not contribute to reconciliation was that neither side sought reconciliation as its primary objective. For Kim Jong Il, resolution of the abduction issue was a necessary prerequisite for gaining economic assistance from Japan, a prize that justified the gamble of releasing the Japanese abductees. Possibly, the North Korean leader underestimated the degree of Japanese sensitivity to the abductee issue; but the Japan-DPRK relationship would have been frozen in any event the following month, when North Korean officials revealed to a visiting U.S. delegation the existence of a second covert nuclear weapons program. . . . By the same token, Koizumi could hardly have believed that his visit to Pyongyang marked an important step in Japan-DPRK reconciliation. Rather, he wanted to be seen as taking dramatic action in response to a perceived security threat to Japan, thus giving his public opinion ratings a much-needed boost. From a letter responding to "Instead of Reconciliation, A Widening Gulf," May/June 2003 InPrint (see full text).

*For the information on the current status of North Korea's relations with the United States, South Korea, and Japan, we gratefully acknowledge BBC Online (see link at left) as well as David E. Sanger, "Is It Legal to Stop North Korea's Nuclear Exports?" in the New York Times, 18 May 2003 Week in Review.
**For the ideas about factoring history into international affairs, we owe thanks to Thomas Berger for the paper he presented at this year's International Studies Association Annual Meeting (February 27, 2003), "On the Importance of Being Sorry: The 'History Problem' in Japan's Foreign Relations." Notably, this paper was a revised and expanded version of a book chapter he wrote for The Future of the U.S.-Japanese Alliance, eds. John Ikenberry and Takashi Inoguchi (Palgrave, forthcoming).
--Mary-Lea Cox, Web Editor