Overcoming the Stalemate on the Korean Peninsula

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Overcoming the Stalemate on the Korean Peninsula

June 13, 2002 6 min read
Balbina Hwang
Balbina Hwang
Former Senior Policy Analyst
Balbina is a former Senior Policy Analyst

In the days immediately following President Bush's now famous "axis of evil" speech, I fielded dozens of calls from people who were horrified that the President had identified North Korea as an evil regime.

Critics both here and abroad conjured up dire visions of doom: U.S. bombs raining down on Pyongyang, North Korean tanks crossing the demilitarized zone into South Korea, and blood baths on the peninsula.

But now, three months later, what do we see? We actually see the initial signs of genuine progress in relations between the United States and North Korea and between the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) and North Korea. These are the first signs since North Korea halted the process, well before President Bush was elected to office.

Some of these signs of progress include:

  • North Korea's agreeing to meet with the Japanese Red Cross and even talking about normalization of ties;
  • Reunions of separated family members;
  • Ministerial-level talks between North and South;
  • Delegations from KEDO (the Korea Energy Development Organization, responsible for monitoring progress of the light-water nuclear reactors being built in the North); and
  • Possible resumption of talks between the United States and North Korea.

But what do these signs of change mean? Are they truly significant, marking a watershed shift in North Korea's relations with the U.S. and the ROK? Or, are they just ephemeral and random moments that have no lasting significance for these relations?

I believe that these recent developments are significant, although I remain cautious in my optimism. But the real significance of North Korean signals is that they are a direct result of the so-called hard-line stance by the Bush Administration. I label it "so-called" because, in fact, the policy is not hard-line at all, but simply realistic.


The Bush Administration, in my view, has two main objectives vis-à-vis North Korea.

The first objective is to establish a new standard by which North Korea would no longer be allowed to manipulate the international community through extortion. Rather, this policy would force North Korea to realize that it must play by the rules of the international community, and not the other way around.

What does this mean?

It means that the burden of action and change is now on North Korea to prove to the outside world that it would accept the most basic principles recognized by all civilized societies:

These principles include:

  • Not resorting to the use of force or the threat to use force;
  • Abandoning terrorism as a tool of foreign policy;
  • Not proliferating weapons of mass destruction (WMD);
  • Abiding by the most basic normative principles of the international community, including the provision of basic human rights, democracy, and an open economy.

In other words, the U.S. policy is no longer about stopping North Korea's bad behavior temporarily, through bribes, but by forcing fundamental changes in its thinking and future actions.

The second objective of the Bush policy, I believe, is to let the ROK take the lead in the process toward peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula, including, ultimately, peaceful unification.

The world has learned from the long, frustrating years of Middle East peace process that interim solutions do not work. What is needed is a comprehensive peace process and solution that results in a permanent peace between the two parties most directly involved, and with the most to gain. In the case of Korea, this means that the U.S. should not be the one to dictate to South Korea what the Koreans want or need. South Koreans, with their own vibrant democracy, are perfectly capable of forming their own goals and visions for the peninsula.

What this means is that the U.S. and ROK, as allies and friends, ought to share the principles behind their respective policies toward the North. But this does not necessarily mean that they must share exactly the same goals and means of achieving them.

Of course, we do share the fundamental long-term goals of peace and stability. The immediate prioritization of goals may differ, however. For example, for the U.S., these goals are ending North Korea's terrorist habits and WMD proliferation.

In the weeks following the "axis of evil" speech, it was a shock for me to see more unity between North and South Korea than at almost any other moment in the past 50 years. I actually heard South Koreans agreeing with the North Korean condemnation of President Bush's "axis of evil" statement. I even heard a South Korean National Assemblyman call President Bush "evil."

But much of this discontent or anger toward Americans was really a function of misperception, or misunderstanding on the part of South Koreans (and Americans) about who really caused the rupture in North-South dialogue.

If one looks carefully at the calendar of events in late 2000 and 2001, it is clear that the North was responsible. And it is clear from recent overtures being made by North Korea that the North can be the only one to restart the reconciliation process.

As the presidential campaigns heat up in South Korea, this is an opportunity for South Koreans to have meaningful dialogue and debate over what their country's goals and policies should be towards the North.

Some observe this election campaign marks the time that Korean politics is finally issue-driven rather than candidate-driven, but I disagree. While it is true that there does seem to be a clearer contrast between Roh Moo Hyun and Lee Hoi Chang, I believe that ultimately the basis for this distinction is still personality-driven. Roh has such grass-roots popularity because he symbolizes the anti-establishment; the establishment is something that younger Koreans chafe at but are still unable to fully deny.

I am now about to say something that is probably controversial. I do not believe that ultimately it matters much who wins the election in December, as far as it pertains to North Korea policy. While it is worrisome to me that Roh has called for some radical policies, such as the abolishment of national security laws, for example, or the nationalization of newspapers, I do not think he will be able to implement such policies. After all, Kim Dae Jung, and even Kim Young Sam before him, similarly called for abolishment of national security laws.

Ultimately, the South Korean public will desire a moderate policy toward North Korea and the United States, and this moderate sentiment will rein in the "hawkish" views of Lee Hoi Chang, and the "radical" views of Roh.


Regarding our goal for North Korea: it is no longer enough for us to focus on just "getting them to the table." North Korea has so managed to manipulate the situation that we (Americans and South Koreans alike) have been lulled into setting our standards of success on just being able to meet with the North Koreans and getting them to talk.

That is not, and should not be, our goal.

Although getting them to the table is certainly a necessary step in our ultimate goal, we need to be wary of selling ourselves down the river just to meet these intermediate steps. To echo the words of Dr. William Perry, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense who headed an official review of U.S. policy toward North Korea, "we ought to deal with North Korea, not as we wish it to be, but as they are now."

This means a realistic and pragmatic policy as articulated by the Bush Administration, in which we deal with North Korea on our terms, not on theirs.

Balbina Hwang is Policy Analyst for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation. She delivered these remarks at a meeting of the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council in Washington, D.C.


Balbina Hwang
Balbina Hwang

Former Senior Policy Analyst