July 6, 2001 | Backgrounder on Asia
When President George W. Bush entered office, he inherited an uncertain situation on the Korean Peninsula. The euphoria following the historic June 2000 summit between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had already begun to fade. Despite symbolic efforts to reconcile the Koreas, there has been no substantive progress in resolving the tougher issues that remain at the heart of the conflict and its resultant instability. Although the North appeared to exhibit a measure of goodwill through such gestures as agreeing to family reunions of relatives separated for over a half century, it also carefully orchestrated these emotionally intense and widely publicized moments.
The North has yet to provide concrete evidence to back up its professed willingness to reconcile with the South and reduce tensions on the Peninsula. North Korea remains a totalitarian regime that poses significant conventional military and possible nuclear threats to the United States as well as its allies, South Korea and Japan.
In March, President Bush decided to suspend negotiations with North Korea until his Administration had conducted a full review of U.S. policy toward North Korea.1 This cautious step was criticized as delaying progress on the Peninsula, but the results of the review, which was completed on June 6, confirm that a careful assessment of North Korea policy was needed. The review mapped out for Administration officials the difficulties that lie ahead for the United States, such as ensuring North Korea's commitment to reconciliation on the Peninsula.
Based on this review, the Administration's new policy toward North Korea-pragmatic engagement coupled with credible deterrence-will prove to be the best approach given the current situation on the Peninsula and the strictures on options negotiated by the previous Administration. Nevertheless, significant issues, among them the overwhelming conventional force threat that still exists, uncertainty about the North's nuclear programs, and the lack of a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War, remain to be addressed.
The Bush Administration's review of U.S. policy toward North Korea reaffirmed the importance of supporting South Korea's Sunshine Policy of engagement, the basic principles of the 1994 Agreed Framework,2 and the carrot-and-stick approach of the Perry initiative.3 This initiative called for "verifiable assurances" and "verifiable cessation" of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs as assured in the Agreed Framework.
The Clinton Administration, however, never devised a policy mechanism for wielding a stick should the North fail to meet its commitments. Instead, it continually fed the North carrots that effectively rewarded it for threatening behaviors. Consequently, the Clinton Administration's approach frequently deteriorated to one of crisis management. The North Koreans were given access to U.S. leaders at the highest levels, including face-to-face meetings with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and President Bill Clinton.
Therefore, the policy recommended by the Bush review calls for supporting the basic principles of the 1994 Agreed Framework as necessary but insufficient for lessening North Korean threats, and calls for its improved implementation. Under the new policy, the pattern of rewarding the North's negative or threatening behavior can be reversed. For example, the Clinton Administration often employed food aid as a diplomatic tool to secure North Korean agreements to meet with U.S. officials, such as North Korean participation in the so-called Four-Party Talks4 over a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. Under Bush, while the United States will strongly pursue efforts to engage North Korean officials on a broad agenda, the level of contact should be reduced whenever Pyongyang attempts to extort more concessions from the U.S. Also, humanitarian aid will not be used by Bush as a political inducement
The review recommends an important change of direction for U.S. policy: It places the emphasis of engagement on reducing North Korea's threatening conventional military posture. This threat actually has continued to increase, not decrease, despite perceptions of improved relations with the South. Kim Jong-Il has continued to adhere to his "military first" policy, designating tremendous budget resources for the military at the expense of the civil sector, which continues on its downward spiral into disaster.
Indeed, as General Thomas Schwartz, Commander in Chief of both the U.N. Command and U.S. Forces Korea, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, North Korea's military forces are "bigger, better, closer and deadlier" than they were one year ago. The North Korea People's Army numbers over 1.2 million, making it the world's fifth largest active duty force. Approximately 700,000 troops, 8,000 artillery systems, and 2,000 tanks remain in place within 90 miles of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).5
Thus, President Bush has identified the reduction of this conventional threat as an important objective in relations with North Korea. If Pyongyang responds favorably to this policy change by continuing to dialogue with the United States and Seoul, credibly reducing its conventional military threat, and providing verification of its moratorium on missile and nuclear development, Washington will respond by expanding humanitarian aid to the North and easing sanctions.
This assessment, however, is incorrect. At the Washington summit between Presidents Bush and Kim Dae Jung in March, the South Koreans expressed disappointment at the Administration's decision to suspend negotiations with the North while it conducted a review of past policies; but the Bush approach, mistakenly interpreted as "hard-line," has turned out to be both pragmatic and prudent.
It is reasonable for a new President to assess and evaluate his predecessor's policies before moving ahead with future policy. Indeed, it would have been foolhardy for President Bush to rush forward without a thorough and systematic review of America's objectives and goals in Korea and the region. It may be easy for some to blame the United States for stalled inter-Korean relations, but the reality is that the North itself has prevented further talks with the South, perhaps because it has been unable or unwilling to fulfill its end of the bargain.
Critics of the Bush review argue that the new policy is reminiscent of Clinton's policy of appeasement. They are wrong. Engagement is not appeasement. Engagement of difficult states combined with a tough strategy of containment was a strategy pursued by every U.S. Administration during the Cold War. Containment without engagement will not work, not only because there are no other viable alternatives, but also because limited engagement is the only way to test and assess North Korea's true intentions. Engagement, however, will be successful only if the United States and its allies continue to provide a credible deterrent against the North's recalcitrance or its attempts to take advantage of the process.
The Bush review was an important step in crafting a comprehensive policy toward North Korea, but some issues remain unresolved. To continue to play an effective role in this important region, the United States should implement the following actions, in this order:
For over 50 years, the United States has played a critical role as peacekeeper on the Korean Peninsula and in the Northeast Asian region. In the future, the United States will continue to play a key role as peace-builder, through its continued commitment to its allies in the region, by promoting the principles of liberal economics, democratic values, and mutual security.
The North's recent overtures to the South are indeed a welcome development, but promises unfulfilled can quickly turn hope into practical reservation and distrust. The Bush Administration's review of past U.S. policies toward North Korea properly has led it to base its own policies on pragmatic engagement coupled with credible deterrence.
Balbina Y. Hwang is a Policy Analyst on Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
1. For more on policies of the previous Administration, see Larry M. Wortzel, Ph.D., "Rushing to North Korea Is a Mistake for President Clinton," Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 702, October 19, 2000.
2. The Agreed Framework, sometimes referred to as the Geneva Framework, was concluded between the United States and North Korea in 1994. It addressed the threat posed by the North's nuclear program, and was meant to diffuse tensions on the Peninsula. The United States agreed to help North Korea acquire two light-water nuclear power reactors and interim supplies of heavy fuel oil in exchange for the North's freeze on its existing nuclear weapons facilities, and promise to eventually dismantle the facilities and comply with its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Framework specifies that over time the United States and North Korea will work towards full normalization of their political and economic relations and peace and security on the Peninsula.
5. Testimony of General Thomas A. Schwartz, Commander in Chief, United Nations Command/Combined Forces Command, and Commander, U.S. Forces Korea, before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, March 27, 2001.
6. The Trilateral
Coordination and Oversight Group emerged from meetings in April
1999 among top officials from the United States, South Korea, and
Japan. These countries recognized the security threats posed by
North Korea's military programs, as well its humanitarian crisis.
Their concerns resulted in a "concerted and integrated approach
building on the Agreed Framework and each country's bilateral