The six-party talks between North Korea and its neighbors and the United States have yet to resolve the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula. The on-again, off-again talks have not slowed efforts by the Communist regime of Kim Jong Il to build nuclear weapons. Scholar and analyst Nicholas Eberstadt recently argued that the U-S should look for new strategies to challenge the North Korean regime, including non-diplomatic measures. His article provoked an angry response from the South Korean government, which called his recommendations irresponsible. Joining us to talk about strategies the U-S may be considering for handling North Korea are Nicholas Eberstadt, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; Insun Kang, Washington correspondent for the Chosun Daily News; and joining us by phone from New York, Thomas Lee, associate professor of law at Fordham University. Welcome and thanks for joining us today.
Host: Nick Eberstadt, in your article that provoked this response from the South Korean government, you said that it is Exceedingly unlikely that North Korea can be talked or bribed out of its nuclear quest. How unlikely is exceedingly unlikely?
Eberstadt: I think we have to look at the track record of the last fifteen years. The South Korean government, the U-S government to some degree, other Western governments have negotiated with the D-P-R-K, with the North Korean government for almost a decade and a half now to try to achieve denuclearization. We have had a number of different agreements promising an end to the North Korean nuclear program, starting with an agreement between North and South Korea that was signed at the end of 1991. The North Korean government has violated each one of these agreements. It has promised repeatedly to denuclearize. It has then developed nuclear programs overtly if it had to, or covertly in the case of highly enriched uranium. I don't think that we see any indication over the last fifteen years that the North Korean government will actually keep its promises of denuclearizing.
Host: Insun Kang, do you think that talks with North Korea are that unlikely to bring about real change in their nuclear ambitions?
Kang: Well, so far we haven't seen much progress yet, I mean, especially through the six-party talks. So, well, it will work eventually if we find out some more incentives or other reasons for North Korea to come back to the negotiating table, but so far I haven't seen any possibility that we can change it or cut their nuclear ambition in the near future.
Host: Thomas Lee are you there by phone?
Lee: Yes I am.
Host: Do you think that it's a matter of finding new incentives for North Korea or that talks are unlikely even with new incentives on the table to change the basic ambitions of North Korea to have a nuclear weapons program.
Lee: Right. Well, I think to sort of gage the effectiveness of talks, I think you have to sort of think about what you speculate as the reason for them wanting to possess nuclear weapons. And I think Mr. Eberstadt sort of focuses on the more pragmatic and economic reasons and various sort of belligerency reasons for the North's quest for nuclear weapons. And I think that, I think that by contrast that there is a legitimate security fear that the North has, a devastating threat from the United States. And to the extent that their call for bilateral discussions as opposed to six-party talks is essentially a call for a clearer signal from the United States of non-aggressive intentions. I think that perhaps that's something worth looking at more carefully to the extent that one thinks that what they're doing with regard to nuclear weapons is to some degree based on legitimate fear of American intentions toward the North and specifically toward Kim Jong Il. What I-R [International Relations] theorists, near realist I-R theorists would call a legitimate security dilemma on their part.
Host: Nick Eberstadt, is the North merely responding to what it perceives as a serious security threat to the regime's existence?
Eberstadt: Possibly so, possibly so, but whatever else Kim Jong Il has developed in North Korea, I don't think he's yet invented a time machine. So I don't think he was able to go back before George Bush's access of evil speeches and George Bush's other unfriendly remarks about North Korea to the heyday of Sunshine Policy in the Clinton Administration and retroactively begin his highly enriched uranium program, which violated all of the agreements and promises that he had made with the United States in the seeming period of progress. Making the world safe for Kim Jong Il is a tough deal to come through on. It probably means an end to the U-S R-O-K [United States-Republic of Korea] alliance and it probably also means giving South Korea to North Korea for an unconditional absorption. It's hard to make Kim Jong Il feel secure.
Host: Insun Kang, what do you think would have to happen for Kim Jong Il to feel secure?
Kang: Well, if we just listen to all North Koreans have claimed so far, they need some kind of a treaty or documents which contain United States will not attack North Korea or threaten [them] militarily. Well I don't think in the history there's any case [showing] that that kind of document can secure a country's security. So, it seems to me very unrealistic. But if it's just a matter of paper, then I mean, well, in a sense it can be easier for the United States to give them the security, even though it's just a sense of security.
Host: Well, Thomas Lee, if during the, after the negotiations with the Clinton administration, if having been given those guarantees and oil and other things as part of that agreement, North Korea went ahead with its uranium enrichment enterprises, why would sitting down for talks now with the U-S two-way talks result in any kind of different outcome?
Lee: Well, I think I'll make two points in response. One is sort of a deeper historical point, which is, you know the North Korean memory is in many respects frozen in time. And I think Mr. Eberstadt had invoked the metaphor of a time machine. I mean, you have to realize this is a country that was the most bombed out country in the world. They had to move much of their industrial production and in fact towns and so forth and their population underground in massive complexes that still exist. And I think that the memory of that has been kept bright and alive. I remember when I was a graduate student at Harvard, one of the interesting collections they had was of North Korean comic books and it was just incredible, the extent to which they had dwelled on that entire experience and the extent that it's molded the North Korean psyche. And even as recently as 1994, I can't talk completely freely about it because at the time I was in uniform as a U-S Naval intelligence officer, sort of engaged in the classified aspect of all this, but we were very close to a military option in those summer months. It was a very tense time. And we have to remember that the North knew that. I mean, to a certain extent they had a sense that we were realistically thinking about a military strike at that point and I think that to a certain extent, they are pragmatists, I think they are realists about this and perhaps they, we're not absolutely certain, but it seems pretty clear that they had pursued enriched uranium at least from open sources even as early as late 1994, but it seems to me that history indicates to a certain extent that they have a very profound sense of insecurity with regards to the United States. And I agree with Ms. Kang in the sense that, you know, something like a non-aggression pact, we have to remember as a legal matter, the terms of our peace with North Korea is still governed by an armistice, not a peace treaty. And there's some debate as to long-running armistices as a matter of customary international law becoming in effect functional peace treaties. But, I think that that would be an important step. Normalizing relations to a certain degree would be an important step. And it is these sort of symbolic gestures that have been missing in our dialogue and perhaps are what the North is really looking for.
Host: Let me ask Nick Eberstadt. Is it that there's not the right peace of paper on the table at this point?
Eberstadt: A peace treaty between the United States and the D-P-R-K, a signed peace treaty would be an item in the D-P-R-K portfolio for its relationship with South Korea, not for its relationship with the United States. It would not establish, necessarily a genuine and lasting peace with the U-S because that's established by the intentions of potentially hostile states. What it would do instead, is it would give the North Korean government another excuse for lobbying for the exit of U-S troops from South Korea and for abrogated the U-S-R-O-K military alliance. And there's plenty of tension already, pressure already, on that military alliance. Just this month, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense has declared that it will no longer refer to North Korea as the main adversary for South Korean military forces, raising the question of what those six-hundred thousand troops are actually facing. North Korea has a long-term objective of ending this alliance. The U-S support for South Korea was what prevented the unconditional unification of the peninsula in 1950. And North Korea's got a pretty long-term game plan, I think.
Host: Insun Kang, what is the position at this point in South Korea on this question that Nick brings up, of the status of the alliance between the U-S and South Korea. Would the government of South Korea welcome at this point the U-S, let's say, opting out of that and removing troops from South Korea?
Kang: Well, our government's official position is of course, they support the U-S and R-O-K alliance and they also request the United States to stay in the Korean peninsula for the security of the peninsula and for the future of the peninsula. But, I mean, there are a lot of generational changes in South Korea and there's a young group who want to be more independent of the United States. And so they have a claim that U-S troops in South Korea should withdrawn. And that's kind of the students' movements in the 1980s' voices, but these days, they just grew up to be politicians. And then, it's not on the surface, but there are some kind of groups who strongly support that position.
Host: Thomas Lee, what do you think would happen in South Korea if the U-S did remove its troops from South Korea?
Lee: Right, I think there are significant generational gaps between perspectives on the alliance and I think that the generation that were college students in the seventies and eighties, where the U-S was perceived as implicit and sort of heavy-handed, complicit in heavy-handed tactics by the militarist regimes of the South, it's still very lacking for that generation. And that generation is coming to political power in the South. The older generation, which is sort of my father's generation, they're in their seventies and eighties. Obviously they have a very different view of the alliance, more along the terms of a cold war safety alliance. But I think that, from the people that I've talked to, I think the more rational and sort of the better view, and the one that is sort of coming into vogue is to reimagine the U-S-South Korea security alliance along the lines of what has happened with NATO, as more of a regional security institution. And that, there is some truth to that and from that perspective, it's not really about keeping the troops in South Korea for the North Korea threat, it's basically to keep stability in the region. And particularly for Korea, there's a certain degree of animosity about Japan, I remember for a while there in Korea, the top of the best seller list was a Korean Tom Clancy-type book about the impending war between Korea and Japan. And certainly China's concerned and I think the perception is, for the people that aren't sort of polarized by the generational gaps I've talked about, the view is that the alliance has real value in terms of regional stability, but it shouldn't be focused exclusively on the North Korean threat.
Host: Nick Eberstadt, you said in your article that the current administration in South Korea is pursuing a policy of appeasement, and to what extent, if that's the case, do you think that the U-S providing such a large part of South Korea's security facilitates that posture from the South Korean government?
Eberstadt: I should start by saying that appeasement shouldn't be used only as a sort of a negative cudgel to beat people with, because appeasement policy sometimes can be very successful. The special relationship between Britain and the United States today is based upon a British appeasement policy towards the United States in the late 1800s. It was the beginning of our really lasting powerful friendship. The reason that worked is because the United States was appeasable. You could actually give the United States benefits and it would change its behavior, in this case towards Britain, very successfully. Appeasement policy is undesirable when the object of appeasement can not be changed, can not be bribed, if you will, into changing its behavior. And I think that's actually true of the situation with the D-P-R-K today. That's my evaluation of D-P-R-K objectives. As long as the South Korean policy -- Sunshine, engagement, peace and prosperity, call it what you will -- as long as that policy is basically an appeasement policy towards D-P-R-K, based upon the illusion that North Korea can be modified through benefits and gifts, there'll be an increasing tension in the U-S-R-O-K alliance because the alliance has been based upon the North Korean threat and the two governments will be demonstrating increasingly divergent perceptions of that threat.
Host: Do you think that it should be a U-S option or something that should be considered by U-S policy-makers at this point to consider changing that dynamic by either removing troops from South Korea or some other option?
Eberstadt: Well, that's already begun. The United States has already indicated that it's going to be reconfiguring its forces in the Republic of Korea and announced repositioning of about a third of the U-S forces in Korea [that] is already agreed to by both governments. This is supposed to occur by the year 2008. There will be an unavoidable continuing reexamination of the U-S-R-O-K alliance, based upon the North Korean problem, and perhaps also based on increasingly divergent assessments of it.
Host: Insun Kang, do you think that South Korean views of how to deal with North Korea would change or remain the same if South Korea had more of the burden of defending against the North Korean threat?
Kang: Well, South Korean's way of seeing North Korea has been changing. It's been changing and these days, I think, it's been changing quite fast. But I think the debate in South Korea now is whether we are ready to take over all those responsibilities to defend ourselves, which has been dependent a large amount upon the United States. So, some people say we are not yet ready to do that and some say: well, at least we need to try to be independent so that we can just take care of the security situation and the North Korean issues too. But, still, the things that I have seen in Washington so far, I mean, for the last two years, I guess the South Korean government is realizing more about the military reality that we are facing now. So, in the beginning when the government was launched, I mean, Roh Moo-hyun government was launched, they had focused on more independence, but these days I guess they are slowly showing more realistic views than before.
Host: Thomas Lee would you agree that the South Korean current administration that came in thinking it might be able to achieve greater independence is rethinking whether it wants to be responsible for the defense of South Korea?
Lee: Well, I think one point to be made there is that for some time our forces on the peninsula have been more of a trip wire than an actual tactical military force in the sense that it would play a significant role in any war on the peninsula. I mean, the repositioning of the Second Infantry division unit south, for as long as I can remember, when I was in uniform, the primary defensive units along the demilitarized zone were South Korean units and it was the one American infantry division there and in terms of the numbers of it, it was never as much of a presence. I mean, certainly the air forces that we have in the peninsula would be more important in that respect. So I think that for some time, the practical reality has been that any sort of conflict on the Korean peninsula would be shouldered primarily by the South Korean forces, the ROKA [Republic of Korea Army] and the ROK Air Force, and increasingly ROK Navy. So, I think that it's already happened and I think the South Koreans realize this and I think along with it, I think the South Koreans no longer feel as severe a security threat from the North as they did.
Host: Well, on that question of how serious the threat from the North is, we have a little less than a minute, Nick, and there's been a question recently about how secure is Kim Jong Il's regime? We've seen some instances of photos of his disappearing from public places. What's your estimate?
Eberstadt: Well, rumors and news breakthroughs have predicted eighty of the last zero regime changes in North Korea, so, this is a fascinating set of news developments, but I don't think we should put too much significance on it. We can watch and continue to wait, but we've heard a lot of previous warnings that the regime was about to fall when it hasn't.