PSPD in English Archive 2003-11-08   2985

To Rollback or Engage? Dangers and Hopes on the Korean Peninsula

Jae-Jung Suh

Cornell University

The new U.S. security posture, outlined in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and 2002 National Security Strategy and fleshed out in the “counterterrorism war” after the events of 11 September 2000, represents a bold step toward reasserting and buttressing U.S. hegemonic order in the “American lake” in the twenty-first century. Yet this “new” security posture is not really a radical departure from previous policies but rather a resolution -albeit in a more dangerous direction-of the contradiction inherent in them. Since the end of the cold war, the United States has pursued foreign policies whose ends and means are marked by a lack of consistency, as many analysts have noted. Nowhere is this more striking and dangerous than in Northeast Asia where the United States is engaged in contradictory projects to adapt to the post-cold war Asia with cold war means and within a cold war mindset. Washington is talking peace with North Korea and China, two of a few cold war leftover enemies, while at the same time strengthening its own and allies?military capabilities in the region. If these contradictory projects had, even under the more benign Clinton administration, an inherent potential to undermine not only Seoul’s “sunshine policy” but also the fragile regional peace, the perilous potential is turning into a reality under the Bush administration, which favors unilateral, militaristic responses to the challenges of September 11.

U.S. policy toward Korea and Northeast Asia stands on two legs. On what we may call the engagement leg, the United States, after many decades of isolating the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, has held a series of negotiations with Pyongyang since the early 1990s. American diplomats sat down with their North Korean counterparts to negotiate a peaceful end to Pyongyang’s nuclear program. They succeeded in reaching an agreement, called the “Agreed Framework,”which laid out a comprehensive road map for the peaceful development of the two countries’s relationship. Since the Geneva Agreement of 1994, the U.S. State Department has spearheaded efforts to implement the agreement on schedule, at times twisting the arms of its recalcitrant allies. On what we may call the containment leg, however, the United States continues to pursue confrontational policies. Washington has been upgrading its own and its allies?military capabilities in the region in an effort to militarily intimidate North Korea. Moreover, in 1993 the Pentagon adopted as its post-cold war global strategy the two Major Theaters Contingency doctrine, which requires the U.S. military to be prepared to fight two simultaneous wars in Korea and in the Middle East. As U.S. diplomats have labored to implement the Agreed Framework, Pentagon officers have led the drive to translate the doctrine into a reality, reconfiguring and modernizing its and allies’s capabilities to confront North Korea militarily. In short, the U.S. government seeks to contain and to engage North Korea simultaneously. We may dub these contradictory elements of U.S.-North Korea policy “congagement,” an orientation that the United States replicates in its policy toward China, although in a less dramatic manner.

Under the Bush administration, the contradiction inherent in the congagement is being resolved in the direction that not only strengthens the containment but also moves toward “rollback.”The rollback posture is well articulated in the 2001 QDR that specifies as one of the strategic objectives “to occupy [enemy] territory or set the conditions for a regime change.” In order to achieve the objectives, U.S. forces will be structured to fight “in any two theaters of operation in overlapping timeframes,” and to carry out military operations “from a forward deterrent posture” and “across the depth of [enemy] territory.” Following the Nuclear Posture Review that adopts -in a radical departure from the past policy of deterrence -the policy of preemptive nuclear strike, The National Security Strategy of 2002 adds, if only to complete the rollback posture, unilateralism and preemption: “we will not hesitate to act alone…by acting preemptively…”

Yet Washington has not completely abandoned the engagement as it adheres the Framework Agreement and leaves open the possibility of dialogue with Pyongyang, making its overall policy look more like “rollgagement.” The rollgagement may represent a compromise between a realist power strategy and liberal institution-building, out of which a peace regime can develop, but the containment and engagement can, if indiscriminately mixed, create confusion and result in counterproductive outcomes. For they may entail fundamental disagreements about strategic goals, priorities, and means -especially in a complex Asian security environment. In other words, the apparent contradiction between containment and engagement may actually embody irreconcilable social understandings of regional actors and strategic environment. And if they do, then both cannot be sustained for long. I argue that at the heart of “rollgagement” are irreconcilable understandings of the identities of self and other and this has the potential of imploding America’s strategic goal of “building a durable peace on the Korean Peninsula.” As reflected in the exchanges between Washington and Pyongyang after George Bush’s state of the union address in January 2002, the two administrations perceive each other in Manichean terms: in Washington’s eyes the DPRKconstitutes part of the “axis of evil” while in Pyongyang’s eyes the United States represents the “empire of devil.”

On a more immediate policy level, the containment side of U.S. policy imposes a structural constraint on the extent to which engagement can progress. Not only does it hamstring Seoul’s “sunshine policy” and Tokyo’s and Washington’s efforts at engagement, but it has also led to a regional arms build-up. In Northeast Asia America’s two-wars strategy has taken the form of new U.S.-led efforts to integrate and modernize U.S., South Korean, and Japanese forces in preparation for a potential conflict with North Korea. This strategy, predicated on the DPRK being “the major threat” and “the country most likely to involve the United States in a large-scale war,” lays down the force requirement that the militaries in the United States and in allied countries ‘must meet. Given that the DPRK’s military capabilities have been in decline throughout the 1990s, the regional arms build-up is strategy-driven, not threat-driven. True, the “China threat” may be the actual reason for the arms build-up -with the “North Korean threat” merely a justification- but” “it is the “North Korean threat” that the strategy is presently designed to fight and that the United States and its allie’s are geared up to fight militarily.

The fundamental difference between Clinton’s near success and Bush’s stalemate lies not in Bush’s unwillingness to talk or his proposal to expand the agenda but in his refusal to end the enmity between the two nations. The last U.S.-North Korea joint statement shows that it was precisely because the two governments made a commitment to end hostile policies towards each other that the North was ready to scrap its missile program:

Recognizing that improving ties is a natural goal in relations among states and that better relations would benefit both nations in the 21st century while helping ensure peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and in the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. and the D.P.R.K. sides stated that they are prepared to undertake a new direction in their relations. As a crucial first step, the two sides stated that neither government would have hostile intent toward the other and confirmed the commitment of both governments to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity.

Building on the principles laid out in the June 11, 1993 U.S.-D.P.R.K. Joint Statement and reaffirmed in the October 21, 1994 Agreed Framework, the two sides agreed to work to remove mistrust, build mutual confidence, and maintain an atmosphere in which they can deal constructively with issues of central concern. In this regard, the two sides reaffirmed that their relations should be based on the principles of respect for each other’s sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs

It is precisely this commitment “to build a new relationship free from past enmity” that is required to peacefully defuse the missile issue. Pyongyang is not likely to give up the production and deployment of missiles unless Washington shows a willingness to address its security concerns. Hence a possible solution seems to lie in a set of reciprocal concessions whereby Bush provides a security guarantee in exchange for Pyongyang’s termination of its missile program. Only when Bush comes to a realization that his counter-proliferation policy is riddled with contradictions and that the United States-North Korea relationship is entrenched in the security dilemma would such a solution become possible. Given the North’s deep economic problems, one might be tempted to think that it will give in to the American pressure only if the United States offers economic incentives such as removing sanctions. But this may well prove a wishful thinking because Pyongyang is likely to maintain that its military and missiles are the only guarantor of its survival. To treat what it considers the “life-or-death” issue as an economic bargaining chip is to put the cart before the horse. Such an approach turns a blind eye to the stubborn reality that the North’s missiles are a byproduct of the enmity between the two nations and that a solution to the missile issue therefore can begin only with a reciprocal recognition that both sides of the DMZ share the common responsibility for the persistent military tension and arms build-up. Without this sense of reciprocity, the hawks in the United States and South Korea as well as in North Korea may find many a chance to halt and reverse a peace process and to maintain the status quo of armament.

The Agreed Framework of 1994 had laid down the political framework that would allay in a step-by-step, reciprocal manner America’s concerns about the North’s nuclear program and the North’s concerns about U.S. military posture. The Clinton administration was apparently on the verge of negotiating away the missile problem in its final days precisely because it acknowledged the security dilemma dynamic on the Korean peninsula, as clearly reflected in Perry’s admission that North’s missiles might be a weapon of deterrence: [North Korean missiles’] primary reason… is deterrence… They would be deterring the United States.” On the basis of this acknowledgement, the Clinton administration moved to confer to North Korea a guarantee of no nuclear threat and a political normalization; the Kim Jong-Il regime reciprocated by freezing its nuclear and missile programs. The Bush administration halted these processes allegedly for a review. But it has thus far stubbornly refused to acknowledge that the United States and North Korea are entrapped in the vicious cycle of security dilemma, preferring instead to demonize the North; it has thus far resisted the need to adopt reciprocal measures, preferring instead to take unilateral steps. This refusal and resistance contradict the premises underlying the Agreed Framework and other joint statements, and thus have the potential to undo the achievements made through negotiations.

Pyongyang has long demanded to replace the Armistice Agreement with a peace treaty with the United States and to normalize relations between the two. Washington, however, regards the Korean armistice as the cornerstone of the U.S. alliance system in Northeast Asia and therefore untouchable. It is “virtually heresy even to raise the issue, let alone discuss a detailed road plan toward ending the armistice,”as insightful observers noted. The North Korean leadership seems to understand now that the United States will not end the Korean armistice and sign a peace treaty for some time. It has dropped its long-standing objections to U.S. troops in the South, and begun to seek what it terms “an interim peace mechanism” to replace the armistice. One possible way to resolve the differences seems to lie in a set of simultaneous non-aggression pacts between the parties to the Korean War that would establish a new, truly peacekeeping function for UN forces.

Who is party to the war is a tricky question, and there are various answers to it. There seems little disagreement that Washington and Pyongyang are parties while there is little agreement on Seoul’s and Beijing’s status. Although China as one of the three signatories still remains a de jure party to the armistice, I argue that China is not a de facto party because the de facto state of war that had existed between China and the United States and South Korea ended when Beijing opened diplomatic relations with both. Also despite Pyongyang’s insistence that Seoul is not a party, I argue that Seoul’s de facto, if not de jure, status has to be reckoned with. A peace regime on the Korean peninsula could not be built if the South is not involved as a full party. Therefore, Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang can perhaps adopt a document that would lay out a comprehensive set of measures, perhaps in a form similar to the Agreed Framework, that each commits itself to taking to end the state of war. As Seoul and Pyongyang have made progress on this front-they signed a non-aggression pact in 1991 and held a summit last year-the Pyongyang-Washington pair remains the only parties to take a meaningful measure to end the state of war.

The peace process among the three parties needs to be complemented by a regional regime because arms control and disarmament requires a wider participation of the regional states, including China, Russia and Japan. The involvement of all three is essential for a Northeast Asia-wide regime of restraints in arms transfers to the Korean peninsula and for a regional agreement to make the peninsula a nuclear weapons free zone. An excellent way to work on this regional regime is to build on the non-nuclear declaration that the North and South signed in 1991. In the declaration, the two pledged not to develop nuclear weapons but their pledges are not accompanied by commitment by any of the four major powers to respect and support them. In order to make the declaration more effective, North and South Korea can add a protocol, which the four powers then sign and ratify. This could pave the way for a more ambitious demilitarization system where the four commit not to transfer weapons or weapons-related technology to, or through, either Korea.

Little progress is possible, however, unless and until Pyongyang and Washington move to end the enmity between the two. The former seems to have an interest in such a move but lacks the power to bring the other side along; the latter may have the capability but shows little interest in exercising that capability. Seoul has thus far played a positive role not only in mediating between the two but also in tearing down the enmity between North and South Koreas; but it is gripped by lame duck phenomenon and faces uncertain future. Civil society seems the sole source of peace interest and power that can carry on the momentum of d?ente on the Korean peninsula and that can compel the governments to pursue the policies of peace. Building transnational networks among “peace-mongers” of the three countries seems to hold the key that can lock the door to rollback and open the door to engagement.

-END- October 9, 2002


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