September 11, 2001 : Attack on America
Key Trends on the Korean Peninsula After September 11 and the June 2000 Summit Testimony of Dr. Victor D. Cha Before the United States House Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, House International Relations Committee; November 15, 2001

Key Trends on the Korean Peninsula After September 11 and the June 2000 Summit
Testimony of Dr. Victor D. Cha
Associate Professor of Government
Director, Project on America’s Alliances in Asia
Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service
Georgetown University
Before the United States House Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific,
House International Relations Committee
November 15, 2001

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for your kind invitation to testify today. I am honored to have the opportunity to speak before such a distinguished group on the topic of key trends on the Korean Peninsula.

It seems to me that the most efficient way of approaching today’s topic is to ask the following question: how much has changed in the way the United States should view the Korean peninsula in the aftermath of terrorist attacks of September 11, and prior to this, the watershed June 2000 summit between the two Koreas?

September 11

The first of these tasks is not easy. The sheer proximity of events makes it difficult to draw any definitive conclusions about the impact of September 11 on Korea. Nevertheless, certain preliminary observations deserve mentioning. First, the terrorist attacks and their aftermath have validated the strength of America’s friendships in Asia. As the United States prosecutes the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the allies in Northeast Asia have stood firmly behind American actions. While others on this panel will speak to Japanese efforts, I would characterize the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) efforts as proactive and positive thus far. Seoul strongly condemned the terrorist attacks and pledged full support for US actions. It subsequently has offered 450 non-combat troops (120 medical, 170 sea and 150 air logistics personnel and 10 liaison officers) to support war efforts in Afghanistan.

Recent discussions in Seoul center on whether the ROK should dispatch combat troops to the conflict. ROK special warfare units have training well-suited to the mountainous terrain in Afghanistan. If requested by the U.S. (e.g., at the upcoming SCM meetings in mid-November), the issue of combat troops might be a domestically contentious one. Such a request would not be unprecedented – ROK combat forces fought in large numbers with the United States in Vietnam – but the circumstances then differ starkly from today. Whatever trepidations might exist in Seoul on this issue, it is my estimation that the ROK government would respond positively. Alliances are bilateral commitments in which responsibilities flow both ways. As combating global terrorism becomes a part of what the US-ROK alliance stands for in the 21st century, it is incumbent on our Korean allies to remain steadfast in this effort.

With regard to North Korea, the events of September 11 provide the U.S. with a potential window on DPRK intentions. A debate rages in the academic, intelligence, and policy community of experts on the extent to which Pyongyang’s “smile diplomacy” over the past 18 months represent mere tactical changes (i.e., for the purpose of regime survival), or are symptomatic of a fundamental change in intentions (i.e., toward peaceful integration with the international community). Optimists and supporters of ROK president Kim’s “sunshine policy” believe the latter motivates North Korea albeit in a slow, halting, and opaque fashion. I am still somewhat skeptical. But if the North is bent on true change, then September 11 offers a chance for bold DPRK steps in communicating its intent in at least this regard. Recent reports of the DPRK’s intention to sign the UN convention on suppressing terrorist financing (ROK signed October 2001) are encouraging, but this should be followed by tangible actions

After the June 2000 Summit

While it is still too early to draw definitive conclusions about the impact of 9-11 on US-Korea relations, the task is marginally easier with regard to the June 2000 summit. The seventeen months that have passed since this historic event afford us some perspective on how much has changed; how much has remained constant; and how the US should be thinking about the peninsula.

A Critical Time?

For decades prior to June 2000, one could not be accused of overstating the claim that the military armistice ending the Korean War, the Cold War standoff among the major powers in the region, and the spectacularly estranged relationship between the two Koreas saw no change since 1953. Then in a space of five years, a chain of unprecedented events took place. DPRK leader Kim Il-sung died in 1994, leaving a bankrupt economy to an untested quantity in his son, Kim Jong-il. Famine and a burgeoning ballistic missile capability raised concerns that the forty-year old stalemate on the peninsula could be broken by either a DPRK implosion or explosion. The US-DPRK standoff over the North’s nuclear program nearly led to war in June 1994, only to be averted by the Agreed Framework and a new path of US-DPRK engagement. During this same period, the ROK peaked in its postwar development in 1997 with OECD membership and plummeted only a year later to becoming an IMF bailout recipient. Kim Dae-jung embarked on a new “sunshine” or engagement policy with the North. The culmination of this strategy was a historic summit between the two leaders in Pyongyang in June 2000. Talk of peaceful unification filled the air in Seoul, as well as murmurs about the anachronistic US-ROK alliance. Polls showed 90 percent of South Koreans having a positive image of North Korea after the summit. An astounding 53 percent of this population dismissed the possibility of another DPRK invasion.[1]

How should the United States think about these changes? Are we closer to unification and an end to the cold war stalemate? Are many of the conventional truisms we have accepted about the Korean peninsula for so many years suddenly on the verge of being overturned?

I argue that while the June 2000 summit sparked certain changes on the peninsula, a great deal has remained the same. Moreover, where significant change has taken place on the peninsula, the nature of it has often been misunderstood or overstated in the public debate. I make this argument by debunking three “myths” that have emerged in recent re-assessments of conventional security and political thinking. These relate to the nature of the North Korean threat; the unification issue; and the future of the US-ROK alliance.

Reassessing the North Korean “threat”

The June summit gave rise to a debate over how the United States, the ROK, and Japan should perceive DPRK military capabilities. Pessimists argued that little had changed as a result of the June summit. The North was improving their capabilities behind the veil of engagement, and lulling the allies into a false sense of security. Optimists contended that the North’s forward-deployments near the DMZ were not offensively-intended, but were part of a defense and deterrence doctrine (e.g. using artillery to hold Seoul hostage against a US-ROK attack rather than for the purpose of southern invasion).

There are still salient DPRK threats and chances for renewed hostility, but the nature of the problem has changed along two dimensions: proliferation and bargaining leverage. Regarding the former, the DPRK ballistic missile program since the early 1980s has produced a range of missile systems, either deployed or tested, demonstrating progress beyond most expectations. Despite dire material constraints, the North accomplished this largely through reverse-engineering of SCUD-B missile technology acquired from the Soviet Union. The August 1998 test flight of the Taepodong-1 over Japan demonstrated an unexpected leap in IRBM technology (albeit a failed 3-stage payload launch). Although Pyongyang currently adheres to a self-imposed testing moratorium (until 2003), its history of behavior in this area is suspect. In defiance of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) norms and often described as the agent that could single-handedly undermine the entire regime, North Korea has been the most active producer and provider of SCUD missiles and missile technology to Iran, Syria and Pakistan; and concerns abound regarding future proliferation of longer-range systems. Mated with the missile program have been dedicated DPRK efforts at acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities. Deriving from atomic energy agreements with the Soviet Union in the 1960s, Pyongyang’s nuclear industry was capable of supporting a complete nuclear fuel cycle by the 1980s. Subsequent reactors (an operational five megawatt reactor and construction of 50 and 200 MW reactors) presaged an annual reprocessed plutonium production capacity that could sustain in excess of 10 nuclear weapons. While these activities remain frozen and are subject to dismantlement as a result of the 1994 US-DPRK Agreed Framework, suspicions remain regarding the North’s plutonium reprocessing history, alleged covert activities outside Yongbyon, and possible crude nuclear devices.

Coercive Bargaining

The second subtle but significant change with regard to peninsular security involves a new logic of deterrence. The most worrying contingency for the United States is no longer all-out invasion, but rather limited acts of belligerence by the North for the purpose of coercive bargaining. By virtually every calculation of the military balance on the peninsula today, US-ROK defense capabilities overwhelm those of the DPRK, rendering nil the probability of a successful second DPRK offensive. Moreover, standing US war plans promise that any DPRK attempt to replay June 1950 would be met with a decisive counter-offensive aimed at extinguishing the regime. Hence, US-ROK deterrence and containment clearly deals with the contingency of invasion; what is less clear is how effective the strategy is in dealing with limited uses of force by the North to coerce better bargaining positions. This has been the most frequent and consistently threatening behavior by the DPRK since the end of the cold war. Pyongyang’s modus operandi is to undertake acts of belligerence that violate the peace and disrupt the status quo, usually highlighting some grievance the DPRK holds. These “pinprick” acts are usually severe enough to gain everyone’s attention, but at the same time do not warrant all-out retaliation. Thus, Washington and Seoul are manipulated into the awkward position of wanting to punish the North’s misbehavior, but constrained by fears of provoking an unnecessary and costly larger conflict. As a result, they usually issue a token denouncement of the DPRK transgression, but still come to the negotiating table prepared to make concessions that will reduce tensions.

From Pyongyang’s perspective, the objective of this strategy is not to win militarily but to initiate a coercive bargaining process that eventuates in a negotiation outcome better than the status quo ex ante. This is a dangerous and de-stabilizing strategy, but it is the sort of high stakes game that Pyongyang adeptly plays. Two observations about such a strategy require emphasizing. First, basic containment postures designed to deter all-out invasion may not be as effective in discouraging the limited use of force. Second and most important, the resort to force under such a strategy is rational. Even if objective factors weigh wholly against military success, the incentive to undertake a belligerent act is still rational because of the anticipated benefits of renegotiating a new status quo more in line with one’s interests. The costs of the current situation outweigh the costs of change.

In this vein, the armed naval altercation on the west coast of the peninsula in June 1999 offered an ominous precedent. Several North Korean patrol boats transgressed South Korean territorial waters, prompting the ROK Navy to ram the trespassers and an exchange of fire that left 20-30 North Koreans dead. This constituted one of the largest losses of life in North-South altercations since the 1953 armistice, and was a clear demonstration ROK superior naval combat capabilities and training. What grabbed the headlines was the military clash and related casualties. But few really stopped to ask why the North took such actions, or else assumed that the regime either underestimated the ROK’s naval capabilities and resolve, or else acted irrationally. But the most likely possibility was that this North Korean provocation was designed to extort concessions from a fearful ROK and its foreign patrons regarding, in this instance, the validity of the Northern Limitation Line (NLL) maritime boundary between South and North Korea.[2] In other such incidents the North might lob several artillery shells or one chemically-armed short-range missile fired into the South (and if possible non-American in target). The DPRK cannot win a confrontation, but this act could still be rational in the sense that it would cause enough chaos to raise incentives on the peninsula to renegotiate a new status quo possibly more favorable to DPRK interests. Again, such an act would not be based on a rationale about winning but one of avoiding further loss.

The upshot of this for American security interests is that the “threat” posed by North Korea is inherently a more complex and problematic one than during the cold war. While deterrence of a traditional ground invasion is still essential, the more salient question is what in addition to baseline containment is needed to deal with these new problems of proliferation and coercive bargaining. Indeed, this is where the policy debate on North Korea remains undecided. While the current policy emphasizes engagement initiatives layered on top of basic containment strategies to deal with the proliferation threat, others argue that containment-plus-isolation which worked during the cold war, should work again, or that coercion (i.e., containment-plus-coercion) is necessary to deal with the proliferation threat.

Whatever one’s preference, the point to be noted is that the June 2000 summit and its aftermath have not affected the threat assessment. First, the summit had no direct impact on the proliferation dimension of North Korea. Second, there is no denying the summit’s positive dynamics; nevertheless, the heightened confidence among South Koreans wholly dismissing the likelihood of conflict on the peninsula appears to outpace the events themselves. According to the logic laid out above, the true test of whether this confidence is justified is not a function of warmly-worded toasts, embraces, or a return visit by Kim Jong-il but the extent to which material improvements in the North’s situation give it more to lose in coercive bargaining attempts, thereby rendering the policy unattractive.

The US-ROK Alliance

Across a range of criteria that determine the functional success of a military alliance, the US-ROK alliance has done well. The alliance enabled the stationing of 37000 US troops directly at the point of conflict on the peninsula which provided the South with an unequivocal symbol of the US defense commitment and deterred the North with its tripwire presence. The two militaries represent the classic example of an alliance operating under a joint, unitary command (the Combined Forces Command or CFC) with a common doctrine, as well as with a clear division of combat roles practiced through frequent and extensive joint training. Overall host country support for the alliance has been and continues to be strong. Arguably the US and ROK have evolved to fit the ideal definition of military allies, far more workable and efficient than the US-Australia or US-Saudi Arabia alliances and paralleled only by NATO and the US-Japan alliances. However, the unexpected congeniality of the North-South summit raised all sorts of speculation about the future of the US-ROK alliance. If the likelihood of conflict on the peninsula has been eradicated by this new era of Korean peace (as some suggest), then what is the purpose of the alliance? Has South Korean tolerance for the burdensome structures of the alliance and its bases and training ranges waned in direct relation to the euphoria of the summit? Has the summit created a division of interests on the peninsula with the South Koreans “decoupling” their peninsular peace from other issues of concern to the US and Japan? In short, is the alliance increasingly an anachronism of the cold war?

These are hard questions that the alliance must answer with regard to its future, but the emphasis here is on “future.” Excited observers draw a immediate causal link between summit atmospherics and the obsolescence of the alliance. It appeals to Korean romanticism to think that the US alliance becomes less necessary because of this bold move by the Koreas, but the fact of the matter is that the alliance is here to stay as long as the threat remains and perhaps even beyond. The majority of South Korean security thinkers, including Kim Dae-jung himself, have gone on record calling for a security relationship with the US even after unification. Such strategic imperatives do not change easily overnight. Moreover, toasts, warm embraces, and a return visit by Kim Jong-il do not stop ballistic missiles, nuclear posturing, nor heightened tension in the DMZ. To believe that the summit’s platitudes enable Korea to decouple itself from these larger and substantive security concerns of Washington and Tokyo would be a grave mistake. In short, while the rhetoric regarding the dispensability of the alliance and complaints about intrusive aspects of US bases and training might heat up every time there are kind words between the North and South, the clear-headed among South Korean policy makers will not trade away the Eighth Army for the positive atmospherics with Pyongyang.

In this regard, there is one phenomenon evident since the summit that Washington and Seoul must guard against. Because Kim Dae Jung has staked his presidency on the success of the sunshine policy, this has created tremendous domestic-political pressures to show constant progress in the policy. To avoid unnecessarily upsetting the North, Seoul has occasionally asked for postponement and/or scaling down of joint US-ROK military exercises. This may have been an understandable request regarding the Korean War 50th anniversary celebrations scheduled shortly after the June 2000 summit, but it is not an acceptable request with regard to military exercises meant to maintain battle readiness. Not only is this dangerous for USFK, but it actually undermines the South Korean sunshine policy. Engagement is only credible to the target state when it is undergirded by robust defense capabilities. Once capabilities deteriorate, engagement becomes appeasement.

Second, the argument that the end of the Soviet threat and more immediately the Korean detente have highlighted troubling disparities in US and ROK security interests on the peninsula is not a particularly novel revelation. American and South Korean interests are indeed different, but this has always been the case. Historically, ROK expectations regarding the credibility of its American ally’s commitments have always been local in terms of peninsular security and the zero-sum competition with the North. On the other hand, the US has always seen the Korea issue refracted through the prism of its larger regional or global strategies. These differences emerged occasionally but they were managed well because the American cold war strategy linked events in the periphery with US-Soviet competition at the core, thereby causing the regional and local views to converge.

Perhaps the biggest change for the alliance is the increased attention that must be paid, relative to the past, on the alliance “upkeep” issues. To many observers, this became apparent with the North-South summit as detente corresponded with increasing South Korean antipathy toward the more intrusive elements of the American military presence. However, the roots of this dynamic lay not in North Korea’s “smile diplomacy,” but in South Korea’s democracy. In particular, issues with regard to labor and the environment increasingly resonate with voters. Such issues traditionally had little traction in Korean politics, but with the end of the cold war, democratic consolidation, and the emergence of a younger generation of politically active, the political spectrum has broadened sufficiently to encompass civil-military issues.

What this means for the alliance is that South Korean grievances vis-a-vis the status-of-forces agreement (SOFA); basing and land-use, live-fire exercises; host nation support; and the combined forces command (CFC) structures increasingly will become domestic-political issues around which local politicians can gain support. A full discussion of these issues is beyond the scope of this testimony, but the US generally enjoys more favorable terms on these elements of the alliance compared with its other alliances like NATO and the US-Japan relationship. For example, the CFC has been a delicate sovereignty issue for the two governments. Operational control traditionally belonged to the US until December 1995 when peacetime control (as well as chief of the military armistice commission) was transferred to South Korea. There are increasing calls in the post-cold war by South Koreans for wartime operational control; however this faces two obstacles: (1) the lack of adequate intelligence capabilities (which Seoul also desires the US to provide); and (2) US reluctance to concede wartime operational control in any theater it is in. Most likely, an alternative arrangement would need consideration similar to a NATO-type combined control system in wartime, or a US-Japan system of independent control but with specified guidelines about roles and expectations for cooperation. With regard to basing, the US currently occupies 78.6 million pyong (1 pyong = 3.3 square meters) for 36,272 troops. While this amounts to a small fraction of total South Korean land (.23 percent) , it accounts for 40 percent of the land in metropolitan Seoul. There are increasing South Korean calls for changes in the percentage, location, and terms of land used for the US base presence. Relative to Japan or the Philippines, the ROK provides more exclusive land use rights to the US without compensation to the private sector or does not hold the US accountable for damages (56% of the total land usage is granted for exclusive use by the US).

Major changes to the alliance along any of these dimensions would have to wait until a formal peace settlement on the peninsula. But in the interim, there are increasing pressures emanating from within the alliance to manage these issues in a noncombustible manner that minimizes the negative civil-military externalities of the US base presence. It is important to note that complaints regarding these issues do not signal the end of the alliance. First, these “upkeep” issues would have surfaced on the US-ROK agenda regardless of the recent summit because as noted above, they are a function of larger democratic consolidation trends in South Korea and the rise of a politically active civil society. Second, contrary to popular perception, the object of these protests is not necessarily the end of the alliance or the early withdrawal of US forces, but compensation or means of redressing grievances. Finally, the alliance’s focus on these upkeep issues is actually a good omen for its resiliency. In many ways, this represents a natural evolution in the alliance as the South Korean junior partner seeks a more equitable position in the relationship. This was the path of the US-Japan alliance as adjustments were made in the face of problems in Okinawa which has made the alliance overall stronger. The US-ROK alliance is making this transition as well, complementing the alliance’s tactical clarity with new attention to the upkeep and equity issues.


Finally, what about unification? The sight of Kim Jong-il and Kim Dae-jung embracing in Pyongyang was a cathartic event for Koreans filling a void in the Korean psyche and national identity. Accompanying the display of raw emotion and joy at this event was Korean claims that reconciliation for their long-divided country was finally imminent. How close are we to Korea’s holy grail?

In the post-Cold war era, the spectrum of discussion about unification has ranged from “hard landing” scenarios in which the South absorbs an imploded DPRK (popular in the early 1990s) to the “soft landing” scenario of a controlled process of phased integration. But two tenets have been almost religiously accepted by all. First, unification must come through the independent efforts of Koreans, without interference or obstruction from external powers. Implicit in this view is that the major powers are fundamentally opposed to unification and seek to keep Korea down. Second, unification is inevitable with the division of the country in the 20th century an aberration of history for this homogenous nation.

The first of these tenets, which has been an underlying principle of unification agreed upon by the two Koreas dating back to the 1972 joint communique and re-stated in every subsequent meeting including the June summit, requires analysis. The notion of unification through independence (chajusong) is in principle unassailable, but in practice highly unlikely. This is less commentary on the innate ability of Koreans, than it is Korea’s curse of geography. The peninsula’s location in Northeast Asia, in combination with the region’s power asymmetries (as a small power among larger ones), has made Korea geostrategically critical to major power interests. Any who question this claim need only look at the past century where all of the major powers (the US, Japan, China, and Russia) have fought at least one major war over control of the peninsula. Thus, as long as states vie for power in the region, Korea will suffer the fate of the “shrimp crushed between whales.” If the peninsula were located by the North Pole, unification through independent means might be possible, but its pivotal position makes major power interests inherent in any changes on the peninsula.

The complementary argument to chajusong is that all the major powers oppose unification. An opinion often espoused by Koreans, this view argues that the intentions of the major powers are to prevent a reunited Korea from upsetting the regional power balance, and despite rhetoric to the contrary, their grand strategies including the United States are dedicated implicitly to opposing or preventing unification. Koreans are indoctrinated in this view to such an extent that it has become an unquestioned fact, and any evidence to the contrary is dismissed or ignored. This is a terribly overstated myth. The major powers, in particular the United States and Japan, do not oppose unification per se. They simply prefer the known status quo to an unknown and potentially destabilizing future. The primary objective of each major power on the peninsula with regard to its own national security is to maintain stability. In spite of the militarization of the DMZ and the absence of a peace settlement, a strange form of stability has emerged since 1953 based on deterrence and the military stalemate. A suboptimal outcome in the minds of all concerned with the peninsula, this realized outcome is still preferable to a change in the status quo where both the process and the outcome are wholly unknown.

In spite of these considerations, if the two Koreas were to begin a process of unification tomorrow, it would be wholly within US (and other major power) interests to support this process without prevarication. This is because any actions to the contrary would undermine the other major objective with regard to unification: avoiding a united Korea aligned against it. Actively impeding or opposing a process once it got started would virtually ensure a united Korean state hostile to one’s interests. The standard truism about major power opposition to unification therefore is too crude. While the impetus for changing the status quo is not likely to come from the major powers, Koreans can be assured that once they started the process themselves, the external powers would be obligated to support it. This would not be out of affinity, goodwill or loyalty (although these factors may be present), but because it is in their respective interests to do so.

The NIMT (“not in my time”) consensus

The second tenet of unification -- that it is inevitable because division is aberrant -- has a ritualistic quality about it that obscures the real ambivalence with which many Koreans themselves regard unification. Unification has always been the holy grail, but the enthusiasm for it has fluctuated widely over the past decade. At the end of the cold war, the common view was that unification (whether through a hard or soft landing) was only a matter of time given the collapse of the Soviet Union and the North’s economic difficulties. The Kim Young Sam administration in the early 1990s claimed absorption of their northern brethren was just around the corner. However, both the confidence and enthusiasm that typified South Korean attitudes waned dramatically thereafter. First, the North Korean regime defied all the experts just by surviving, thereby ruling out the unification by default scenario. Second, a better understanding of the German case deflated Korean expectations in two ways. The comparative indicators did not bode well for Korea since the economic gap between East and West Germany was relatively smaller than that between the two Koreas, and the capacity of the West German economy to absorb its counterpart also surpassed South Korea’s. Moreover, what South Koreans saw as ill-advised mistakes by the Germans on integration policy (e.g. currency union) which they would not duplicate, were in actuality unavoidable given the domestic-political pressures of unification. For example, on currency union, contrary to South Korean beliefs, the German government was not ignorant of the inflationary pressures of a 1:1 conversion rate, but this action was unavoidable given the need to appeal to and accommodate a newly enfranchised East German electorate -- a problem that a democratic united Korean government would also face. Finally, while earlier assessments of unification costs (by government-supported research institutes in the South) saw these as manageable, more objective studies subsequently put the costs as high as $1 trillion which far exceeded the German example. In good part, these new estimates corrected for the biases and unforeseen consequences in earlier studies. The liquidity crisis that hit South Korea in 1997-98 brought into stark and sobering relief the high costs of such an exercise and essentially deflated any remaining buoyant expectations about unification.

The new ambivalence toward unification is manifest in several ways. Popular attitudes have changed markedly. Pragmatic considerations have intruded on what was formerly a normative discourse on unification. In part this is linked to generational change as fewer Koreans of the “war generation” experienced a non-divided country. It is also linked to the North’s famine-like conditions over the past few years which only further raised the anticipated costs of union. The result is that unification is no longer seen in the same holy terms. The discourse quickly turns to the added tax burden faced by Koreans and the vast pressures the northerners will place on an already weak social safety net. Hence while it is still part of one’s Korean identity to yearn for unification in normative terms, a pragmatic “NIMT” (not in my time) consensus has emerged. As one observer noted, “[Unification] is a goal recited with an understood wink. While virtually everyone in South Korea vows allegiance to it, few people actually want it to happen very soon, if at all.”[3] Moreover, to explicitly enunciate such doubts and ambivalence, while understood by all, would be blasphemous.

This NIMT consensus is also apparent in current South Korean government policy. A number of traits distinguish Seoul’s “sunshine” or engagement policy with North Korea, including the persistence and consistency of the policy in spite of DPRK provocations, and the open-ended nature of engagement (encouraging all countries to engage with North Korea). But what is most important in the context of this discussion is that it is the first northern policy in South Korean history that does not explicitly bespeak of unification as a goal, effectively taking it off the political agenda (in the South). Such a unification-agnostic policy is both facilitated by and symptomatic of this larger shift in attitudes.

These changing attitudes affect how the US should be thinking about future peace solutions on the Korean peninsula. This is generally thought of along two dimensions: 1) a continuation of the status quo; or 2) victory of one side over the other. However, the shift in Korean attitudes on unification means that we need to think about peace solutions on the peninsula that are increasingly non-zero sum in nature. Advancing from an armistice to a peace treaty is certainly requisite, but moving beyond that, possible peace solutions could include: 1) Korean coexistence and US withdrawal or 2) Korean coexistence and the US as a peacekeeping entity on the peninsula. There are other possibilities but the point is that as rethinking on unification occurs, options for the US military presence move beyond the two dimensions we are generally accustomed to thinking about.

Perspective, Not Pessimism

With all the change that appears to be sweeping the Korean peninsula since the June 2000 North-South summit, congressional testimony that stresses constancy may appear to rain on Korea’s parade. But such testimony constitutes an appeal for perspective. The summit and its aftermath open the first narrow window on North Korean intentions. This is extremely important but it is also inconclusive. While we may indeed sit at the threshold of long-awaited change on the Korean peninsula and a real chance for lasting peace, clearly the hard work is yet to be done. Credible communication of a change in intentions must be done not through rhetoric, but through changes in military capabilities including the conventional balance of forces; the DPRK’s missile and WMD programs; and beyond this, the status of US forces on the peninsula. Only with these changes will the skeptics be convinced of that which we all wish to be true -- a peace solution on the Korean peninsula, which would be the most important event in East Asia since World War II.


[1] See Choson Ilbo-Korea Gallup and Hankook Ilbo-Media Research polling results reported in Korea Herald, 19 June 2000 (“Summit talks greatly improve image of Kim Jong-il among South Koreans”).

[2] The NLL was unilaterally declared by the United Nations Command after the 1950-53 Korean War, and for the US and ROK, represents the “de facto” maritime border. The DPRK does not recognize the line and claims as its own the resource and fish-rich disputed waters less than 12 miles away from its western coast (the disputed seas are also located less than 12 miles away from South Korean-owned islands in the West Sea).

[3] Washington Post, 18 June 2000 (Doug Struck, “In the South, One Korea is Distant Goal”).

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