REVIEW: Article

The Road Not Taken

I had hoped to be writing this article following my return from a visit to Pyongyang in late February. The North Korean Foreign Ministry had invited five of us to spend three or four days in Pyongyang to exchange views on the current situation. Our leader was to have been Dr. Robert Scalapino, the renowned Asia scholar from UC Berkeley. Others in the group were all former United States (US) Ambassadors to Seoul, William Gleysteen, Richard Walker, Stephen Bosworth and myself.

To be honest, I was not completely surprised when I got word on February 8 that the North Koreans had called off the visit. No specific reason was given, and we are not certain whether we are dealing with a cancellation or a postponement. I hope that it is only a postponement, as I believe that it is high time that Americans and North Koreans start talking to each other.

Fortunately, I was able to re-activate an invitation to an excellent late February conference in the United Kingdom (UK) that gave me an opportunity to talk to two North Korean foreign service officers, and watch them intermingle with South Koreans at the same gathering. I was encouraged by what I saw and heard. The North and South Koreans seemed to seek each other out, eating together and chatting very naturally during coffee breaks. The North Koreans were openly friendly to me, and expressed the hope that my visit to Pyongyang might be rescheduled.

The senior North Korean, a former Ambassador, gave one presentation on the subject of Japan. He was direct and harsh in dealing with Japan’s past iniquities, but his passing references to South Korea were remarkable for their moderation. The most notable line from the Ambassador’s speech was this:

“Korea today is not what Korea was yesterday. The historic inter-Korean summit meeting has made a decisive breakthrough in going for reconciliation, cooperation and peaceful reunification from confrontation.”

I had a less positive interaction with several of the European diplomats and intellectuals on the matter of America’s war on terrorism. They seemed to be saying, “We’ve been dealing with terrorism for years, now you know how we feel, why make such a big deal of it; don’t over-react.”

While I was able to react energetically, and to some extent effectively to these misperceptions, my deepest reaction was that if it was possible for the Europeans to misread us so badly, how much easier it would be for the North Koreans to do so.

Everything I have learned since returning from the UK has heightened this fear. The fighting in Afghanistan escalated dramatically at the end of February, and lasted for more than two weeks. President Bush’s concerns about the intensity of the war and its possible spread to other countries, Yemen in particular, were evident in his remarks on March 11. The President’s determination to pursue the war vigorously was equally evident.

At the heart of American worries about the war is the fear that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) may fall into the hands of the terrorists. Intelligence gathered in Afghanistan and elsewhere points clearly to acquisition of WMD as one of the primary goals of al-Qaeda. The Bush Administration has no doubts whatsoever that the terrorists would use such weapons with impunity should they acquire them and the appropriate delivery systems. This concern has caused the technical capacities of North Korea, particularly in the long-range missile field, to become an issue of critical importance to the Bush Administration.

Policy advisors who specialize in technical matters relating to nuclear proliferation, missile systems and development of WMD have achieved positions of great influence in the Bush Administration. In some cases these technically oriented advisors have greater influence than the regional specialists who focus on the economic, political and conven­tional military patterns in their areas of expertise. This is particularly true in the case of Korean affairs. Those officials who have been primarily focused on the improvement in regional relations within Northeast Asia, South Korea’s “sunshine policy,” and the positive impact of the June 2000 summit in Pyongyang, now have less influence than those advisors concerned primarily with North Korean WMD and missile delivery systems.

It also has become crystal clear that the Bush Administration has no intention of building on any of the progress made by the Clinton Administration in its last year. The North Koreans have made evident their hope that there could be a reaffirmation by the Bush Administration of the declaration of mutual respect and non-hostility issued at the time of Vice Marshall Jo Myong Rok’s visit to Washington in October 2000. That is not going to happen. The mantra of the Bush Administration is that it is ready to talk to North Korea “any time, any place, without conditions.” That is not going to happen either, as it has become clear through a variety of channels that the Bush Administration’s agenda for talks, placing greater emphasis on intrusive inspections and conventional troop deploy­ments along the demilitarized zone (DMZ), is not one that the North Koreans are as yet ready to consider.*

There is a dangerous gap of mutual ignorance and hostility existing between Washington and Pyongyang that seems to widen with time. The North Koreans have no accurate reading of how aroused and angry the US is as a result of the September 11 attacks. They also cannot possibly fathom how deeply concerned we are about the missile and WMD problem sketched above. In comparison with the people they were able to talk to in the Clinton Administration, including the President, the Secretaries of State and Defense and others, the North Koreans feel that they have been sharply downgraded by the rank and status of the people they are able to meet with in the Bush Administration. They also feel deeply insulted by Bush Administration rhetoric, particularly the term “axis of evil.” There has been a profound loss of “face” by the North Koreans, which the Bush Administration is unwilling or unable to recognize, perhaps because Pyongyang’s respond­ing rhetoric has been even more extreme than that emanating from Washington.

Pyongyang has not helped its own case by not following through on a promised summit in Seoul, by ending reunions of family members separated by the Korean War, and by not joining Seoul in a mutually beneficial project to rejoin their railroads at the DMZ. For reasons not entirely clear to Western observers, North Korea continues to rebuff South Korea’s requests for a resumption of dialogue.

As Washington looks North at Pyongyang, it sees an unreliable, dangerous regime, threateningly positioned along the DMZ that has sold ballistic missile systems and compo­nents to Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Egypt and others. It also judges Pyongyang harshly for its inability to feed its people, and for draconian measures applied to a downtrodden populace. Some at the periphery of the Bush Administration speak openly of their hope for a collapse or regime change in North Korea.

As Pyongyang looks out at the United States, it sees a hostile great power with devastating military strength. North Korea fears our strength and resents our rhetoric. Its fear and its pride have been aroused.

The stage is set for a dangerous impasse. Such an impasse would jeopardize a golden opportunity for the Bush Administration and its allies in the war against terrorism, to virtually write off Northeast Asia as a source of military concern. In the wake of 9/11, Pyongyang tried to make clear, through both open and closed channels, its revulsion at what had been done to the US, and its opposition to terrorism. These statements emanating from Pyongyang have been either forgotten or ignored in Washington. They should not be forgotten as there is no evidence whatsoever of any connection between Pyongyang and the Taliban or al-Qaeda.

The other countries of Northeast Asia, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, are enjoying their best relations in history, and all are in favor of bringing North Korea out of its isolation and into more normal economic and political relations with its neighbors. Only the United States appears to stand aloof from such a positive development.

The Pentagon already has plenty on its plate, with troops deployed to several far-flung countries, and a major clash with Iraq possibly in the offing. Given such a situation, the threat of any outbreak of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula would be a nightmare to contend with, requiring among other things immediate major shifts of airpower.

Leaving the American position aside, the current situation would seem to be ripe for a resumption of dialogue between Pyongyang and Seoul. President Kim Dae-jung would certainly welcome such a positive development, and would do all in his power to facilitate a resumption of talks between Pyongyang and Washington. It is not at all clear that Pyongyang will make such a move.

Failing that, there is a need for someone on either the North Korean or American side, to break the current impasse by making a gesture of true statesmanship. The need for such a gesture is clear. Who will step into the breach?*

* Editor’s Note: The New York Times of March 20, 2002, reported that “for the first time since North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear activities in exchange for foreign aid, the United States will refuse to certify that the country is complying with its commitments under the accord….But in what appeared to be an effort to forestall a diplomatic crisis…Mr. Bush would waive, in the interest of national security, the certification of North Korean compliance that Congress now requires. That would enable the United States to continue providing North Korea with fuel oil under the agreement.”

* Editor’s Note: A similar version of this article, written by Donald P. Gregg, appeared in The Korea Society Quarterly, Winter 2002 edition.

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United States Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, 1989-1993