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The U.S. and North Korea: Can We Bridge the Gap This Time?

March 14, 2007

For someone who was involved in direct negotiations with North Korea in the late 1990′s and who has viewed the events of  the past several years from the sidelines, I look at the recent Six Party agreement among the DPRK, the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, with both skepticism and hope — skepticism because many in the U.S. and North Korea still fail to comprehend how threatened each feels by the other, making a lasting solution virtually impossible to attain; hope because many in Washington and elsewhere are beginning to see this disconnect, as I did a few years back, and the need to address it.   

I’m a Korean-American, whose mother was born in what is now North Korea, and my father, South Korea.  When I came to my U.S. State Department assignment on the DPRK in 1998, I did so holding certain “truths” about North Korea’s leadership. The regime was irrational, corrupt, and totalitarian. Though weakened by the fall of communism, it was still dangerous, armed with a military of one million men, thousands of artillery tubes, chemical and biological weapons, and possibly nuclear devices. Like a schoolyard bully, I believed, it needed to be taught a lesson.

Not surprisingly, during the hundreds of hours of negotiations, I endured diatribes about how the North’s people would always keep the homeland safe from outside interference and that they would fight for independence with “their last breath.” Yet embedded in this bravado were North Korea’s constant references to itself as a small, vulnerable nation among large, powerful states, all waiting for the chance to invade.

In the beginning, I dismissed the North’s statements of weakness as hyperbole — a simple bargaining tactic. Yet, unexpectedly, my views evolved over time, becoming more nuanced, as I questioned whether many of my deeply rooted beliefs were based in caricature or fact.  I kept this subtle change to myself, not sharing my private doubts with those colleagues who continued to hold what was once my “super” hard-line position.

Some time later, after I had left government, I attended a presentation given by an old friend, who had also been a part of U.S. talks with North Korea, and to my surprise, I found that his “hawkish” approach to North Korea had also shifted.  It had taken a while, my friend admitted, but the change had occurred, in part, because he had concluded the North’s statements of insecurity were not just for show.  It was around that time that I recognized the existence of a long-standing disconnect between the U.S. and North Korea, one that would make moving forward on the nuclear issue extremely difficult — our failure to comprehend how threatened North Koreans are by the United States, and the DPRK’s failure to understand how threatened we are by them.

To the vast majority of Americans, such a fear on the part of North Korea is difficult to absorb. Though we abhor North Korea’s political regime, Americans abhor even more the idea of a United States initiating hostilities against another country unprovoked ” U.S. policy leading to the current war in Iraq notwithstanding.  Our usual way of dealing with regimes we do not like is to isolate them; as long as they don’t bother us, we won’t bother them. But to the average North Korean and to its leadership, the dread of a military strike is real, a part of the North’s ethos since the country’s inception (in months early in the Korean War, U.S. planes were dropping close to 800 tons of bombs per day, much of it napalm, on North Korea, leveling the countryside and cities).  Of course, this fear — or paranoia — is exacerbated by the U.S. forces in Iraq and calls for preemptive strikes on various nuclear or missile facilities in the DPRK.

On the other hand, North Korean negotiators and representatives have repeatedly expressed astonishment that the most powerful country in the history of the earth feels endangered by the “defensive” actions of a tiny state thousands of miles away.  To be sure, there are many in South Korea and elsewhere who say the same thing, dismissing U.S. actions toward North Korea as justification to get rid of a government we dislike.   However, these cynics fail to grasp the enormous impact of 9/11 on U.S. policymakers and the Americans they have sworn to protect.  For so many here in the U.S., the world has changed, and the prospect of a hostile North Korea regularly producing weapons-grade nuclear material that could intentionally or unintentionally find its way to a terrorist, only adds to the threat.

I have no idea if North Korea is really willing to give up its nuclear weapons program.  Undeniably, there are many strong arguments to suggest that it will not.  However, the current Six Party process — for all its shortcomings — represents the best hope to test the DPRK’s intentions.  This will no doubt take time, firmness, and patience, but at least it appears key people in both Washington and Pyongyang are taking the right steps to bridge a huge gap that stands in the way of any potential solution.  For everyone’s sake, I hope they succeed.

Philip Yun, The Asia Foundation’s Vice President for Resource Development, was a U.S. State Department official from 1994-2001, working on North Korea policy from 1998-2001. He participated in talks between the U.S. and North Korea from 1998 to 2000.

View all posts by Philip W. Yun

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