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  February 21, 2002  

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The Koreas

Background to a troubled peninsula

By John Feffer
With permission from Foreign Policy In Focus


The Korean peninsula, colonized by Japan from 1910-1945, was liberated and divided at virtually the same time. In the closing days of World War II, the Soviets moved in from the north and repatriated guerrilla leader Kim Il-sung as leader of the new communist state. After liberating the South, the US worked behind the scenes to ensure the election of "our man in Seoul" Syngman Rhee.

Nationalist attempts to reunite the peninsula, which seemed promising in the immediate postwar period, were foiled largely by Rhee's virulent anti-communism and US skepticism. The dividing line at the 38th parallel was formalized in 1948 with the establishment of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). On both sides of the parallel, the regimes consolidated power through extensive purges.

The five years of internecine clashes following liberation, resulting in thousands of deaths, deserve to be called a war, with responsibility for the bloodshed equally shared by both sides. Only from 1950, however, when Northern forces invaded and quickly seized most of the South, do most historians and politicians date the beginning of the Korean War. The conflict quickly drew in other actors. US forces intervened on the side of the South (under the banner of the United Nations); after the US had driven North Korean forces to the Chinese border, the Chinese Volunteer Army entered the conflict to halt the US advance. After three years - and nearly 2 million Korean, Chinese, and US deaths - the war ended in an armistice that left the two sides with the same territory they had at the war's start.

From 1953 until the present, the Korean War has continued by other means. Both North and South engaged in extensive espionage, fought occasional skirmishes along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), beamed propaganda across the border, and lined up allies through trade and diplomatic persuasion. Currently, both North and South Korea maintain huge armies and arsenals. North Korea spends a greater portion of its GNP on the military, but the South Korean military is more technologically advanced, better trained, and backed by additional US firepower. Neither side has agreed to reductions or substantial confidence-building mechanisms beyond a crisis hot line. The DMZ, where both sides concentrate their forces, remains one of the world's most dangerous flash points.

Until the mid-1970s, the two countries remained roughly on a par economically, having pursued similar state-led industrialization reforms. Politically, too, the two countries built charismatic dictatorships and ruling structures patterned on a mixture of Confucian principles and military organization. In the 1970s, however, the two countries began to diverge. The South pursued an export-led development strategy that would eventually transform it into one of the leading industrial powers in the world. The North embraced the principle of self-sufficiency, kept its distance from both the communist and capitalist trading blocs, and gradually slipped economically until the 1990s when, after a series of natural disasters, it spiraled down into famine and industrial collapse.

During this period, the North calcified into a communist dynasty: after Kim Il-sung's death in 1994, his son Kim Jong-il took over the reins of power. In the South, meanwhile, a growing civic movement forced democratic reforms in the late 1980s and, in 1997, the election of former opposition leader Kim Dae-jung to the presidency.

The conflict between North and South Korea has always been an international one. Korea was divided by foreign powers; the Korean War was stoked by foreign armies; and during the Cold War the two sides were armed and aided by third parties.

The Korean conflict has also spilled over to other countries - to the Third World where the two countries competed for influence, to Myanmar where agents from the North blew up an entourage of Southern politicians in 1983, to Japan where separate communities affiliated with the North and South have long engaged in a war of words, and to China where South Korean churches and civic organizations work among North Korean food migrants.

In the 1990s, international interest in the Korean conflict shifted focus to North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program. In 1994, a US war with North Korea over this program was averted at the last moment largely through the mediation of former president Jimmy Carter. A negotiated settlement, the Agreed Framework, commits a number of countries (including the US, South Korea, and Japan) to build power plants for North Korea in exchange for the freezing of its nuclear program.

In 1998, North Korea launched over Japan what it claimed to be a satellite. This three-stage rocket, though apparently unsuccessful in putting a satellite into orbit, advertised North Korea's developing missile program and raised fears in Japan of North Korea's new offensive potential. Particularly concerned with North Korean missile sales to other "states of concern," such as Iran, the US and other countries are eager to negotiate a suspension of the missile program comparable to the 1994 freeze on the nuclear program.

In terms of its capacity to strike at the US, however, North Korea does not yet have the systems necessary to deliver whatever nuclear material it might have hidden from inspectors. The Taepodong-1 rocket it tested in 1998 has a limit of 1,200 miles, which does not reach the US. In addition, North Korea has pledged to continue its moratorium on missile tests until 2003.

North Korea's opposition to the US-sponsored missile defense program has strengthened its alliance with China and Russia, although these relationships are not without tensions, particularly over the slow pace of North Korea's economic reforms. Kim Jong-il has indicated on several occasions - a recent trip to Shanghai, last year's New Year's Message - that the country is on the verge of market reforms. While economic cooperation has definitely improved inter-Korean relations, the level of international economic engagement with North Korea remains minimal and North Korea's economic isolation is a contributing factor to potential conflict.

Profiles of major players

The ruling party in South Korea is the Millennium Democratic Party, which was led by current president Kim Dae-jung until he stepped down in November 2001. Eight candidates have announced their intention to replace Kim Dae-jung as the party's standard-bearer in the presidential elections later this year. Kim Dae-jung has built his international reputation on his conciliatory policy toward North Korea, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. Domestically he and the MDP are under fire for an economic slowdown, the mishandling of labor disputes, continued corruption in government, and ongoing collusion between politicians and the large business conglomerates known as chaebol.

The chief opposition party in South Korea is the Grand National Party, the successor to the party that ruled South Korea for decades. During Kim Dae-jung's tenure, the opposition characterized his North Korea policy as not extracting sufficient quid pro quos for South Korean aid and investment. The Grand National Party has pledged to continue supporting food aid to North Korea but has also proposed additional conditions, such as improvements in North Korea's human rights record.

Several key South Korean institutions and civic movements are involved in the reunification issue. Korean civic movements - women's organizations, labor unions, peace groups - have established several exchanges with their North Korean counterparts. In August 2001, after a large civic delegation visited North Korea, several of the participants were detained on their return to the South for making unauthorized visits and statements that violated the draconian National Security Law.

The major party in North Korea is the Workers' Party. There is not much difference between party and state institutions in North Korea. While the role of the military in South Korean politics has declined under democracy, the North Korean military has become stronger during this time of economic adversity.

There are no publicly known opposition movements in North Korea. There are also no true non-governmental organizations, although recently an association devoted to the rights of the handicapped was formed with the assistance of Handicapped International.

Overseas Korean organizations play an important role in peninsular politics. In exile, Kim Dae-jung founded an influential organization that campaigned for the democratization of South Korea followed by reunification (a rival group argued for the reverse). Perhaps the most important overseas organization today is Chochongryon (Chosen Soren), the organization of North Koreans in Japan that has provided both economic and political support for the North Korean government.

At one point providing millions of dollars a year in funds, this state-within-a-state has recently seen a decline in membership, a downturn in the fortunes of its businesses, and increased scrutiny of its financial transactions by the Japanese government. There are no sizable ethnic minorities living on the Korean peninsula.

Role of the United States

The United States is responsible for the lion's share of the destruction of North Korea during the Korean War and for supporting a succession of dictatorial regimes in South Korea. The US military presence in South Korea (37,000 troops) and in the Asia-Pacific region more generally (100,000 troops) supports a Cold War in the East when the Cold War in the West is already a decade gone.

Nor is this military presence slated for reduction: the Pentagon's most recent Quadrennial Defense Review advocates an expansion of the US military in Asia.

Although the "Sunshine" policy is predicated on peaceful reconciliation, the South Korean government continues to modernize and expand its military with the help of the United States. For example, the US recently permitted South Korea to expand the range of its short-range missiles so that they can now strike at virtually the entire territory of North Korea.

The US does not maintain diplomatic relations with North Korea and has gone to great lengths to prevent the country from participating in key international organizations. For its part, North Korea has consistently excoriated the US and has threatened the country rhetorically. After the near-war of 1994, however, the US and North Korea entered a period of fitful detente that culminated with the visit of a high-ranking North Korean official to Washington in October 2000 and the reciprocal visit of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang the following month. The follow-up trip by then president Bill Clinton, which might have led to a deal on North Korea's missile program, was cancelled during the Florida vote-counting controversy.

The Bush administration halted this forward momentum in two key ways. It launched a six-month review of North Korea policy and moderated US support for Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine" policy. The review recommended that the US focus on reducing not only North Korea's missile program but its conventional forces as well, an asymmetric demand that contributed to derailing negotiations.

In July 2001, US Department of Defense Vice Secretary Paul Wolfowitz declared North Korea to be the number one military threat to the United States. As tensions between the two countries increased, prospects for a negotiated solution waned.

In the wake of September 11, North Korea condemned the terrorist attacks and signed several key UN anti-terrorism pacts. But the Bush administration continues to maintain that North Korea is a terrorism-supporting country, and some analysts worry that North Korea could be a future target of the war against terrorism.

Proposed solutions/evaluation of prospects

Since the 1980s, the two Koreas have made several attempts to bridge their gap and inch toward reunification. In 1982, the South Koreans proposed a series of exchanges, the establishment of tourist zones in the North and the linking of a highway between the capital cities. Kim Il-sung, in proposing a neutral confederation, focused on creating new political structures through which the two sides could gradually align their policies. One key sticking point has been the withdrawal of US troops from the South.

The North has explicitly demanded the removal of all foreign armies from the Korean peninsula, but has also given several informal indications that it might compromise on this issue.

In 1998, Kim Dae-jung launched his "Sunshine" policy, which aimed to replace antagonism with engagement. As a result, the level of economic exchange between the two countries has mushroomed. Hyundai corporation launched a tourism project that brought hundreds of thousands of South Koreans to the Kumgang Mountains in the North. The Kumgang expedition aside, the number of people to travel from the South to the North rose dramatically from 1 person in 1989 to 7,300 people in 2000.

There were no North Koreans visiting the South in 1989 while by 2000 the number had grown to 706. Following the first-ever summit between the two Korean leaders in June 2000, North and South Korea signed a declaration of joint principles, agreed to re-link a train line, and planned to launch a new economic zone just north of the DMZ with South Korean financing.

Because the Korean War was a regional conflict, several countries have suggested regional solutions. In 1975, Henry Kissinger proposed cross-recognition with the United States and Japan recognizing North Korea and China and the Soviet Union recognizing the South. With the end of the Cold War, South Korea gained that diplomatic recognition but North Korea remains in diplomatic limbo.

Four-party talks to conclude an official end to the Korean War and involving North Korea, China, the United States and South Korea last took place in 1999 and are currently stalled. Russia has tried to offer its mediating services by proposing six-party talks. Several track-two initiatives have brought North and South Koreans to the table - such as the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) - but no concrete confidence-building measures have resulted from this process.

One such concrete measure though is the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), which was established as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework. A consortium of countries including the US, Japan, and South Korea is building two light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea to replace its suspended nuclear program. This program has fostered unprecedented cooperation between foreigners and North Korean officials and workers.

The program is currently at a key crossroads. It is five years behind schedule and not expected to become operational until 2008. Ground has been broken for the construction, but North Korea will not receive the nuclear components until it has permitted inspections mandated under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

North Korea's economic crisis has led to an unusually high level of contact with international NGOs. The presence of development organizations in Pyongyang and their visits to outlying areas have helped to diminish North Korea's profound isolation from the international community. An increasingly important role is being played by European organizations. North Korea has rebuilt relations with Europe over the last two years, and the European Union may well fill the vacuum created by the Bush administration's frosty approach.

One key relationship remains fragile. North Korean relations with Japan have deteriorated in the wake of a clash between Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and an unidentified ship near Japan's territorial waters. After a brief battle in December, the crew sank the ship and perished. There are several indications that the ship was North Korean in origin.

This battle comes in the midst of Japan's reorientation of defense policy toward more engagement overseas: providing non-combat support in the US war in Afghanistan, participating in UN peacekeeping missions, expanding the role Japan plays in US operations in the region, and removing limits on the SDF's capacity to initiate force in response to aggression. North Korea as well as China and certain elements in South Korea have protested vigorously against the new assertiveness of the Japanese military.

US recognition of North Korea would unjam the current deadlock. It would encourage the Japanese to resolve their differences with North Korea and give a shot in the arm to South Korea's engagement policy. It would improve the climate of investment in North Korea and pave the way for North Korea to join leading regional and international organizations.

While under the current Bush administration such diplomatic recognition is not on the table, this proposal and its intermediate steps (such as the removal of North Korea from the terrorism list) are not entirely beyond the realm of possibility.

(John Feffer <[email protected]> is the author of Shock Waves: Eastern Europe After the Revolutions, the editor of the forthcoming Living in Hope: Community Challenges to Globalization (Zed, 2002), and recently returned from three years working on East Asian issues out of Tokyo.)

Reposted with permission from Foreign Policy In Focus The goal of the Foreign Policy In Focus project is to forge a new global affairs agenda for the US government and the US people - one that makes the US a more responsible global leader and global partner. It is a joint effort of the Interhemispheric Resource Center and the Institute for Policy Studies.


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