Meridian Beat: The Korean Peninsula -- 60 Years Later

Interviewed by: Eo-Jean Kim                     Posted on: August 19, 2013


Meridian 180 spoke with Professor Soo-Hyuck Lee about the meaning of the Korean War and the recent developments on the Peninsula.  Professor Lee (Dankook University) has served as the Head of the South Korean Delegation to the Six-Party Talks (2003-2004), First Deputy Director of the National Intelligence Service, and as the Ambassador to Germany and Yugoslavia.

- July 27 was the 60th Anniversary of the Korean War truce.  What are the enduring effects of the Korean War? What is its legacy?

The Korean War broke out with North Korea's invasion of South Korea in 1950―its attempt to communize the Korean Peninsula by military force— and went on for three years.  The fratricidal war(동족상잔, 同族相殘) caused the Korean nation (한국민족, 韓國民族) a loss of numerous human lives and tremendous material and psychological damages.  Furthermore, involvement of China, USSR, and the United States marked the beginning of the Cold War.  The Korean War also shed new light on the role of the United Nations in preserving international peace.

The War broke out [only] five years after Korea was emancipated from Japanese imperialism. It deepened the rancor and the rift between the South and the North and solidified the state of division on the Korean Peninsula.  In a few years, the Korean Peninsula will have been divided for 70 years.  Like Korea, Germany experienced division following the World War II, but it achieved unification 45 years later. Korea, on the other hand, remains divided and continues to experience confrontation. I am deeply concerned that the long-term division may eventually turn into a permanent division.

- Let's talk about the Kaesŏng Industrial Complex(“KIC”) situation, which has perhaps been the most significant inter-Korean relations issue lately.  In July, there were six rounds of inter-Korean working-level talk to reopen the complex, but they ended in deadlock.  Then, on August 14, the two Koreas resumed the talk and reached a deal where both sides agreed to work actively toward normalizing KIC's operations.  Why were they able to reach an agreement this time? What led to this outcome?

KIC's operations were brought to a halt when North Korean workers were removed from the complex amid heightened tensions following North Korea’s threats of military attack in March.  There has been much speculation about why North Korea—which needs KIC more [than South Korea]—decided to suspend KIC's operations.  But at any rate, [on August 14], North Korea agreed to work toward normalizing the complex. 

In viewing how North Korea created military tensions in March and April this year, we should understand the propagandistic nature of these actions—their message is that North Korea is, at any moment in time, willing to begin a war on the Korean Peninsula—and that these actions are strictly controlled not to reach a point where a war would actually break out.  We have to remember that at the time, the Park Geunhye administration had recently launched in South Korea. 

North Korea has achieved its domestic and international goals to a certain extent. So it has now adopted a pacificatory attitude, suggesting conciliation and collaboration.  This conciliatory gesture(유화적제스츄어) is a policy decision that North Korea has to choose at this point; it has never been North Korea’s true intention or goal to further sever its relationship with South Korea.  North Korea is in dire need of the KIC project.  That said, since KIC is an important test case (시금석, 試金石) for inter-Korean political conciliation and economic collaboration, patience, flexibility, and self-restraint on the part of the South Korean government are also needed.

- So the two sides have come to an agreement for now.  Do you have any concerns about what may happen next?

The biggest question in the minds of the South Korean public and people around the world is probably if North Korea will actually keep its promise and carry out the terms of the agreement.  Put differently, the question is: What are the safeguard measures that would prevent North Korea from breaking its promise yet again?

The question is in part derived from distrust against North Korea, which North Korea itself created.  Even if they are willing to invest in North Korea, foreign companies would first need to be assured that North Korea can be trusted.  North Korea should reflect upon the KIC suspension situation and make sure that a similar situation does not recur for political or military reasons. 

- In the period between the suspension of KIC's operation in April and the agreement on August 14, the Korean Peninsula situation seems to have undergone some major changes.  Particularly, in the last two months or so North Korea has adopted a more conciliatory tone and has actively sought talks with the US and South Korea.  This draws a sharp contrast with North Korea's belligerent attitude this spring.  How should we understand this change of attitude, and what significance may it have for the future of the inter-Korea relations and the Peninsula?

Many people [in South Korea] worry that the August 14 agreement and dialogues about divided families' reunion and about the resumption of Mount Geumgang tour may work as "indulgences" (면죄부, 免罪符).  In other words, their concern is that North Korea will be effectively exonerated from its past deeds—such as Cheonanham sinking and Yeonpyeong Island shelling in 2010, and the incident in 2008 where a South Korean tourist was shot to death by a North Korean soldier—that severed inter-Korean ties.  That a dialogue between the North and the South is occurring in and of itself is not significant; it is more important to create a mutual understanding of the meaning of inter-Korean collaboration. 

The vicious cycle of provocation-dialogue-collaboration-provocation should not be repeated this time.  Emphasizing principles, President Park Geunhye has spoken of her determination to put an end to an old scenario where after a period of time following North Korea's provocation, a dialogue unfolds and North Korea gets an economic payback from it.  The Obama administration is also taking a similar stance.  Viewed from these perspectives, the inter-Korean agreement on August 14 offers much to think about in determining the future direction of the inter-Korean relations.

- Let's shift our focus to the problem of North Korea's nuclear development, which is a source of great concern for South Korea and the international community. What motivates North Korea's nuclear development? What does North Korea want?

It has been over 20 years since North Korea's nuclear issue first appeared in the international scene. Already 10 years have passed since the Six-Party Talks was established as a mechanism for dealing with the second North Korean nuclear crisis following [a revelation of] the North Korean uranium enrichment program. The Six-Party Talks generated some agreements. Additionally, [in 1994], following the first North Korean nuclear crisis, the so-called "Geneva Agreed Framework” was signed between North Korea and the US. Despite these negotiations and agreements, North Korea has never abandoned its nuclear program and has continued to develop its nuclear capabilities. North Korea has also made sure that the world witnesses its nuclear capabilities by conducting nuclear tests and by unveiling its uranium enrichment facilities in 2011.

Under these circumstances, there has been much skepticism(회의론) about whether nuclear negotiation with North Korea should be pursued. Based on its attitude [thus far], I support the hypothesis that North Korea will not abandon its nuclear ambitions. My analysis is that North Korea will likely maintain its position that nuclear weapons are necessary for the survival of its regime.

It is, however, imperative that North Korea gives up its nuclear ambitions and that the international community persuades North Korea to do so. North Korea's nuclear abandonment is a necessary condition for Korean reunification; moreover, it would be a[n important] step toward international peace and peace in the East Asian region. It is not only South Korea, Japan, or the US, that will be threatened by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The weapons could also pose a threat to China. I think that China is experiencing anxiety [with respect to the North Korean nuclear program] for this reason.

- In light of recent developments, what is the likelihood that the North Korean nuclear issue will be addressed through international bilateral or multilateral negotiation?

In the decade following the Six-Party Talks, North Korea's nuclear program has remained an unresolved issue and its nuclear capabilities have continued to grow. Thus, many people are naturally skeptical about [resuming] six-party talks. What is clear, however, is that unless North Korea voluntarily abandons its nuclear program, there are only two choices available—negotiation or compulsion. Peaceful negotiation is [in principle] a more desirable dispute resolution method than compulsory measures like forceful sanction or military recourse. Thus, negotiation should be pursued with patience. Since five out of the six participating nations—except North Korea—have not given up on a resolution by six-party talks, it is likely that the talks will be resumed. China's support for six-party talks will also facilitate the resumption of the talks. However, ultimately the policies and the will of South Korea and the United States—which have decided that North Korea cannot be trusted—will be the determining factors for the resumption of the talks.

- You led the South Korean delegation as the Chief Delegate in the first three rounds of the Six-Party Talks (2003-2004); you were also a delegation member in the Geneva Four-Party Talks. Does nuclear negotiation with North Korea have any idiosyncratic aspects or specific challenges?

A representative at the negotiating table, as a matter of principle, negotiates based on the directives of his or her national government. But negotiation vis-a-vis an oppositional party also tends to be more dynamic than static; thus it may require the representative to be an agile responder. A representative may also have an ambition to see the success of the negotiation. In some cases, he or she may feel uncomfortable about the governmental directives. Given these possible issues, the negotiations [during the Six-Party Talks] probably presented more difficulties to the North Korean negotiators than to the negotiators from South Korea or the US.

- Despite the past efforts to curtail North Korea's nuclear development, including sanctions and multilateral talks, North Korea has gone forward with its nuclear program. What is your assessment of this situation? What can be done to suspend further nuclear activity or to ensure peace in the long run?

The North Korean nuclear issue is a core (核) problem of the Korean Peninsula situation. Resolving this issue would have significant implications for unification. Conversely, as long as North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, an international political structure that will allow for unification will [simply] be impossible. North Korea’s nuclearization will trigger an intense arms race in Northeast Asia; the nations in the region will be locked in a security dilemma. This may sound like a platitude, but to survive, North Korea must give up its nuclear ambitions.

- What is China's role with respect to the North Korean nuclear issue? Could you also comment on China's recent stance toward North Korea?

Thus far, the most salient analysis has been that, while opposing North Korea's nuclearization, China is wary of a possible collapse of North Korea due to its national interests. In this vein, many have been critical or skeptical about China's stance on the North Korean nuclear issue.

However, North Korean provocation and threats have reached new levels of hostility and its nuclear program has advanced beyond expectations. At this point, for China, North Korea is not only a burden but a potential threat. I think that China’s policy will likely be aimed at North Korea’s survival, but only to the extent that North Korea can be controlled.

- What should be the position and the goals of South Korea with respect to the North Korean nuclear issue?

The North Korean nuclear issue is a very confounding problem for South Korea. It is a serious security problem that has far-reaching effects on South Korea's diplomatic relations with its neighbors. The issue is also an important variable in domestic politics.

If we accept that unification is the foremost goal of the Korean people (한국민), we must also accept that resolving the North Korean nuclear problem is an imperative. As time passes, North Korean nuclear capabilities will grow more and it will be increasingly difficult to find a solution to this problem. I am deeply concerned about this possibility.

The North Korean nuclear problem is the gravest diplomatic/security issue for South Korea. And as long as North Korea harbors nuclear ambitions, it will be difficult to achieve unification. The South Korean government’s approach to the North Korean nuclear problem should be premised on these [theses].

(End of interview)

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Soo-Hyuck Lee is Chair Professor at Dankook University Graduate School of Legal Studies and Public Administration.  He has served as Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, First Deputy Director of the National Intelligence Service, Secretary to the President for Diplomacy and Trade, and the Ambassador to Yugoslavia and Germany.  During his career, Lee also participated in the multinational talks for the security and peace on the Korean Peninsula—in the Four-Party Talks in 1997 and in the Six Party Talks (from 2003 to 2004) as the Head of the South Korean Delegation.  He has written three books on the Korean Peninsula peace and unification issues: Conversations with United Germany (2006, Random House Korea); Transforming Events- An Analysis of North Korea's Nuclear Issues (2008, Joongang Books); and North Korea is a Reality (2011, 21st Century Books).