Unfreezing Korea

Unfreezing Korea

Mini Teaser: Throughout the dramatic year of 1989 the highly militaristic and secretive Hermit Kingdom of North Korea remained apparently unaffected and apart.

by Author(s): Doug Bandow

Throughout the dramatic year of 1989 the highly militaristic and secretive Hermit Kingdom of North Korea remained apparently unaffected and apart.  Rather than follow the lead of his one-time Soviet patron in adopting glasnost and perestroika, Pyongyang's "Great Leader," Kim Il-sung, withdrew North Korean students from Eastern Europe in order to contain the freedom virus and moved closer to China's gerontocracy, a regime which used bullets to retain power.

Two years later, little has changed on the surface.  North Korea's million-man military remains arrayed for war north of the Demilitarized Zone and Pyongyang appears dedicated to building a nuclear weapon.  Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell recently opined that he was down to just two "demons" to justify the Pentagon's budget: Kim and Fidel Castro.  The Bush administration is resisting pressure to accelerate troop cuts on the peninsula--now set at 7,000 out of 43,000 by 1993--and Secretary of State James Baker has attempted to discourage the ASEAN countries from organizing regional meetings on security issues for fear of weakening America's bilateral ties in East Asia.  "We ought to be careful about changing [existing arrangements]," he cautioned in response to proposals that Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand integrate their economic and security planning independently of the United States.

Yet even the obvious threat posed by the North's potent military cannot obscure signs of a thaw on the peninsula.  Last fall North and South Korean officials met formally for the first time in forty years and began negotiations on a non-aggression treaty; a spokesman for Pyongyang stated that "the two sides laid the foundation for expanded dialogue by fully presenting their positions."  Although North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) canceled the February meeting between the two nations' prime ministers and has continued its sharp rhetorical attacks on the South, the two countries recently agreed to restart the talks.  Moreover, other contacts between the two countries are expanding.

Indirect trade between them ran to $127 million in the first half of 1991 and in July the two governments agreed to their first direct deal, with South Korea (the Republic of Korea) exchanging rice for cement and coal.  While the North limited the size of Seoul's delegation to an inter-Korea parliamentary meeting earlier this year in a fit of pique over U.S.-ROK military exercises, the conference was still held.  More recently the two Koreas fielded a joint table tennis team and a joint youth soccer team which competed in their respective world championships.  The two governments are now discussing the team for the 1992 Summer Olympics and joint sponsorship of the 1993 World Table Tennis Championships.

Even more significant is the fact that both North and South Korea appear poised to join the United Nations.  The South has long wanted to enter the international body, but the North, arguing that separate memberships would reinforce the peninsula's division, instead advocated a joint seat.  Until now the North was backed by the veto power of its two allies, China and the USSR, since the Security Council must approve all applications.  However, Moscow's official recognition of South Korea last year removed the threat of a Soviet veto of ROK membership.  More recently Beijing opened a trade office in Seoul and apparently told Pyongyang that it would no longer block South Korea's application.  To avoid almost total isolation, the North now says it will apply for its own seat.

The weakening support from its main communist allies further isolates the DPRK, which maintains diplomatic relations with just 105 states, compared with 148 for Seoul (90 recognize both countries).  Pyongyang has recently closed its embassies in a dozen African nations, probably for economic reasons.  To compensate, the North has begun searching for new friends.  Pyongyang recently agreed to establish diplomatic relations with the Philippines and end its aid to the communist guerrillas there, and is also negotiating with Japan over formal recognition and financial aid.  Although the discussions have so far achieved little, foundering over Pyongyang's demand for billions in aid and its refusal to allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities, the mere fact that the North is talking to its one-time colonial master demonstrates that important changes are occurring.

North Korea, which now hosts some fifty-three joint ventures, is trying to expand its international economic ties.  Its Kumgangsan Airline has begun flying to Hong Kong and Japan and the airline's chairman recently suggested inaugurating direct air service with Taiwan as well.  The DPRK is also proposing to export coal, gold, uranium, and zinc to Japan.

Under virtually unanimous international pressure, including from China and the USSR (which has been particularly blunt, threatening to halt shipments of nuclear fuel and technology), North Korea may be preparing to accept UN inspection of its nuclear facilities.  The International Atomic Energy Agency says that North Korean officials have agreed to allow inspections, though the formal pact has yet to be signed.  North Korea's special envoy, Ambassador Jun Chung-guk, too, has said that his nation intends to fulfill its responsibilities under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it signed in 1985.  However, Pyongyang has been simultaneously pushing to include inspections of U.S. facilities in the South that allegedly contain tactical nuclear weapons (as well as demanding that Washington promise not to use such weapons against the North), and it is not clear whether North Korea regards such a step to be a precondition to accepting oversight on its own territory.  The DPRK's latest proposal is for a nuclear-free peninsula guaranteed by China, the United States, and the Soviet Union.

There even seems to be interest in warming relations with the United States.  In an interview with a Japanese newspaper, Kim Il-sung observed that "if we can resolve the difficult problems affecting North Korean-U.S. relations, it will help smooth out differences in our relations with Japan."  Pyongyang recently returned the remains of several U.S. soldiers and said it would aid Washington in searching for the remains of 9,000 other MIAs.  The North Korean UN mission is also circulating a brochure encouraging foreign investment, citing their country's willingness to allow "full and tax-free remittance of all dividends and capital."  Pyongyang has accepted an invitation from the U.S. Soccer Federation to play in America.  The North Koreans are also expected to send a gymnastics team to compete in the World Gymnastics Championships, to be held in the United States in the fall.  Until now teams from the North and the United States have competed only on "neutral" ground.  As a spokesman at the South Korean embassy observed, "It's an indication that North Korea is attempting to break out of its self-imposed isolation and is trying to adapt to the external changes that have taken place around its borders."

It may well be that there exists in Pyongyang what the Carnegie Endowment's Selig Harrison has called a "policy struggle" between hardline traditionalists and more moderate technocrats.  As far as we know, no one has formally challenged Kim's hold on power, though Pyongyang radio recently denounced "impure elements who tried to damage the clean tradition of the revolution by Kim Il-sung."  But at least some officials seem genuinely to want their country to rejoin the international community.

Cold War Creations

These changes are particularly welcome because the policies of the two Koreas have reflected unremitting enmity for more than four decades.  Indeed, today's problems go back to Japan's defeat in 1945 and the subsequent division of Korea (a Japanese colony for thirty-five years) between the United States and USSR.  The division was meant to be temporary, but the peninsula nation, like Germany, was a victim of the onset of the Cold War.  Two opposing regimes, the Northern one ruled by former anti-Japanese guerrilla Kim Il-sung and the southern controlled by longtime nationalist Syngman Rhee, arose.  Both claimed to be the legitimate government for the entire peninsula and both encouraged incessant border incidents.  While the United States refused to provide Rhee with heavy weapons lest he make good on his promise to march north to recover the "lost territories," the Soviet Union was less worried about the possibility of conflict, and on June 25, 1950, Pyongyang launched its war of conquest.

The United States intervened, soon followed by China.  The see-saw war essentially settled back where the conflict had begun, and an armistice was signed by all but South Korea on July 27, 1953.  A defense treaty between the United States and the ROK was ratified the following year.  But no final peace was ever negotiated, leaving a perpetual state of cold war that occasionally flared up with vicious firefights along the DMZ.  China withdrew its forces in 1958, but 43,000 U.S. troops still remain, backed by ample air and naval forces and, it is thought, tactical nuclear weapons.

The main purpose of the American presence was always to deter another North Korean attack.  In its early days the ROK was poorer, more unstable, and less well armed than its Northern antagonist.  By most accounts, however, Seoul overtook Pyongyang economically in the 1970s.  Today the ROK's per capita GNP is roughly $6,300, thought to be more than five times that of the North (though reliable figures for the latter are hard to come by).  Given a South Korean population that is double the North's, Seoul boasts an economic edge that likely exceeds eleven-to-one.

Essay Types: Essay