nation of some 22 million, North Korea has long posed as something
of a mystery to Western commentators. Closed and insular, the communist
North is finally being driven to engage with the broader international
community, as well as its southern neighbor. The threat of famine,
and the problem of diplomatic and economic isolation following the
collapse of the Soviet Union, have acted to motivate the North in
its attempts at building dialogue with the South. In 2001, the North’s
Committee for Peaceful Unification of the Fatherland proposed, “that
dialogue between North and South Korea reopen as soon as possible
to open a wider road to reconciliation, unity and national unification.”
opposed to the previous tendency towards tension and confrontation,
the “Sunshine Policy,” embraced by South Korea, is based
on the ideal of rapproachment and reconciliation, facilitated through
the provision of economic aid, the development of trade ties, family
reunion, and ongoing dialogue. Expectations have grown steadily,
especially in South Korea, that this process of engagement would
lead eventually to a negotiated reunification. The Sunshine Policy
has developed with the clear renunciation of any suggestion the
South might “absorb” the North.
recent election of pro-reconciliation presidential candidate Roh
Moo-hyun has promised to breathe new life into this policy, despite
the looming confrontation between P’yongyang and Washington.
towards greater engagement were dealt a serious blow in October
2002 as the North confirmed that it had reinitiated its nuclear
weapons program. The North’s admission thus effectively ended
the 1994 Agreed Framework under which it was to receive “light
-water nuclear technology” in exchange for a commitment to
fateful course had been preceded by North Korean allegations that
the U.S. had violated the Agreed Framework, having failed to deliver
“heavy fuel oil according to schedule and by not moving forward
as planned with the light-water reactors.”
from the North’s claims, we can only speculate on what further
motives lay behind its move, but arguably the North felt compelled
to act in the face of a hawkish U.S. administration eager to extinguish
all remaining outposts against its global hegemony. It is within
the realm of legitimate speculation, also, to suppose that the North
Koreans are hoping to establish a nuclear deterrent in order to
be able to afford some relaxation of their military budget which,
at 20 percent to 25 percent of GDP, is a crippling drain on the
North Korean economy. According to the
Power and Interest News
North Korea has the fourth largest military in the world
with over 1.2 million armed personnel.
North Korean army, while huge, however, does not have the capacity
to win an offensive war against the South. While North Korea’s
massive military commitment is seen as a necessary deterrent, the
North would likely embrace limited disarmament for the sake of economic
growth and prosperity, were it seen to be a viable option.
constant references in the Western media to the regime being “irrational,”
“unstable,” have been made with the effect of building
up the fear and apprehension necessary to rationalize possible military
intervention—or at least diplomatic and economic sanctions
certain to worsen the lot of the nation’s already starving
people. Under such circumstances, with some 37,000 U.S. troops stationed
in South Korea and some 100,000 in the broader region, the prospects
of mutual disarmament between North and South Korea seem slim.
in 2002, George Bush identified North Korea, provocatively and threateningly,
as part of a so-called Axis of Evil. Thereafter, he suggested his
possible willingness to take “pre-emptive action” to “take
out weapons of mass destruction” in so-called rogue states.
The new Bush doctrine even seemed to suggest the possibility of
a nuclear first strike. Suddenly, the prospect of the U.S fighting
wars on two fronts: against P’yongyang and Baghdad—an
idea long entertained by strategists at the Pentagon—may find
real and terrible application.
tensions have spiraled between P’yongyang and the U.S., anti-American
sentiment has exploded in South Korea. The deaths of two South Korean
schoolgirls in a road accident involving a U.S. serviceperson acted
as the catalyst for an unprecedented display of anger and frustration.
As many as 300,000 South Koreans mobilized demanding greater control
over U.S. forces stationed in their country. Many demonstrators
demanded the total withdrawal of U.S. Forces.
this massive popular mobilization simmered resentment over the perceived
preference of the Bush administration for containment, or even confrontation,
over the Sunshine Policy.
Korean resentment has reached an all-time high, following the Bush’s
inclusion of North Korea in his Axis of Evil. While the American
president has become ever more strident in his aggressive posturing
against those states he views as hostile to U.S. interests and hegemony,
South Koreans are increasingly nervous at the damage such rhetoric
has caused to their careful and sincere process of engagement and
term rogue state, it appears, is being used indiscriminately to
describe all states that do not form part of the support structure
of the global U.S. hegemony in the post Soviet world order. In such
a way, the U.S. is poised to rationalize the removal of all resistance
to its global hegemony—either through direct application of
military force or through covert action or diplomatic pressure,
including sanctions and/or the withdrawal of vital humanitarian
aid. It is very convenient for the U.S.—in this period of its
unchallenged economic, political, military dominance—that it
has been able to construct this ideology that legitimizes its role
as “world cop” for a world order it is constructing in
its own image. North Korean trade and production has collapsed since
the fall of the USSR. The country has few significant trading partners
and few means of securing hard currency except from arms exports.
Clearly it is in the country’s interests to pursue a policy
of engagement and rapproachment—as opposed to one of confrontation.
the fall of the USSR, North Korea has faced the task of adapting.
It has faced the difficult task of building diplomatic and trade
ties and of engaging with the global market economy. In the short
term, due to the ongoing threat of famine, the provision of food
aid remains essential.
the Korean peninsula needs now is a negotiated settlement—whereby
a new nation might be built including elements of the old political
systems (i.e., representative and economic democracy, the constitutional
guarantee of social rights and civil liberties, as well as a mixed
economy including a significant socialized sector). This means economic,
political, and diplomatic engagement. It does not mean stirring
up talk of war or the indirect inference of possible nuclear first
strikes. Despite popular wisdom, the regime is not irrational. It
is, however, increasingly desperate. The present nuclear gambit
is evidence of this desperation to deepen economic and political
engagement, lest the North face possible humanitarian catastrophe
and probable collapse.
North’s willingness—indeed, desperation—to adapt,
was further evidenced by the decision, in September, to establish
a free- trade zone in its northwest border with China, and to solicit
is not the time for warlike rhetoric. We ought be critical of attempts
to soften public opinion to the prospect of confrontation with North
Korea, with the possible final consequence of war and human tragedy.
the deficiencies of the communist regime, it ought be remembered
that, from its current position of weakness, it may well be willing
to give concessions— most notably in the crucial field of human
rights. Indeed, further engagement and nurturing of the crucial
Sunshine Policy may yet, one day, lead to a negotiated reunification
to end decades of tension and confrontation.
the U.S. continue to eschew compromise and engagement, however,
the mood on the South Korean street will likely grow more resentful
of a U.S. military presence. Many South Koreans, noting their modern
and impressive armed forces, already question the need for the continued
presence of U.S forces.
the current war of nerves, it is the Korean people who, as always,
stand to suffer most. For the interests of all Koreans, it is time
to press on with engagement and compromise. It is time to press
on with negotiations aimed at ending the current nuclear tensions,
fostering conditions conducive to mutual disarmament, and of further
political, cultural, and economic engagement. The world has had
enough of the winner-take-all approach of the Bush administration.
It is time to give peace a chance.
Ewans lives in Melbourne, Australia. He is a writer and long-time
member of the Socialist left grouping of the Australian Labor Party.