Press Room: Interviews

Q&A; Finding a Way Out With North Korea

New York Times | 06-07-03

Is United States policy easing or heightening tensions on the Korean peninsula? Selig S. Harrison, the director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and the author of ''Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement'' (Princeton University Press, 2002), speaks with Felicia R. Lee about the latest developments.

Q -- Was it a good idea for the United States to agree two days ago to pull back American forces from the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea?

I think they're doing the right thing for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way.

It's long overdue to do this because the threat of another North Korean attack on the South, as in 1950, is remote. North Korea is in such bad shape economically that it could not sustain a protracted war. North Korean forces are forward-deployed at the DMZ to deter us, to make an American pre-emptive strike unacceptably costly, not to attack the South again. Also, it's desirable for the United States to end its role as a ''tripwire,'' so that we're not automatically involved. But the reasons they're pulling back are the wrong ones.

The Pentagon wants to get American forces out of harm's way in order to have greater flexibility when and if they decide on military action against North Korea. They're doing this in the context of a confrontational American posture toward North Korea, which is unfortunate.

The right way to pull back American forces would have been as part of a policy of improving relations with the North. We should have traded American pullbacks for Korean pullbacks.

How do you think North Korea will react to this?

They'll be very suspicious that it is connected to possible future military action against them. They will read it in the context of the current talk in Washington about promoting regime change or a collapse in North Korea and the unwillingness of the United States to negotiate about their economic and security concerns in return for an end to their nuclear program.

What about the South Korean reaction?

There are mixed feelings in the South. The government is afraid that any change in the status quo will affect the stock market and the influx of foreign investment by giving the impression of an unstable security situation. But the younger generation wants a gradual American disengagement. They see the present American diplomatic confrontation with the North and the presence of the American forces as obstacles to improved North-South relations and eventual reunification. If the impression grows that this is indeed designed to give the United States greater flexibility, with an eye to military action, then the reaction will be very negative.

Still, you are optimistic that the North Korean leadership can be convinced to refrain from building more nuclear weapons?

I think they're ready to dismantle their nuclear program under adequate inspections if we're prepared to pay what they consider an acceptable price. First, we'd have to join in a bilateral or multilateral agreement pledging not to use our nuclear weapons against North Korea, an agreement that would have to be linked to a de-nuclearization process. Second, we'd have to pledge not to pursue the policy of regime change that President Bush has made clear is his preferred approach to North Korea. Third, we'd have to be prepared for large-scale energy and food aid. If we pursue pressure tactics that they would view as designed to overthrow the present regime, they are certain to respond either militarily or through other retaliation such as selling nuclear material to anti-American third parties.

Do you agree with some analysts who argue that North Korea's recent behavior and threatening statements have alienated China, which was previously sympathetic to their cause?

I think China is equally disgusted with the United States and North Korea and will exercise pressure on both countries to change their present policies. I'm sure they're telling the North Koreans not to threaten us. But they've made it very clear that they believe the United States should be willing to trade commitment to North Korea relating to its military and economic security in exchange for verifiable dismantlement of its nuclear program.

I think China is insisting that the United States conclude a bilateral security agreement with North Korea and would be prepared for a multilateral, six-power agreement involving the United States, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea. The external powers would commit themselves not to deploy nuclear weapons in Korea. And the two Koreas would pledge not to make nuclear weapons. This would require inspection machinery centering on, but not limited to, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

My own view is that such a six-power de-nuclearization is the most promising way to resolve the current crisis because it would not require the Bush administration to give a bilateral security guarantee to North Korea. The administration has refused to do that, but some form of security assurance to North Korea is required. We cannot expect North Korea to give up its nuclear options if we continue to maintain our ''nuclear umbrella'' and assert our right to pre-emptive military strikes.

What has been the impact of the American victory in Iraq on North Korea?

There is no question that the lesson that the North Koreans have learned from Iraq is that it needs a nuclear deterrent. The American unilateralism reflected in Iraq and in many other ways is alienating the United States from China, Russia, South Korea and Japan. We could end up with the worst of both worlds -- a nuclear North Korea and estranged relations with countries important to us globally as well as regionally.

Contrary to the expectations of many policymakers, you argue that North Korea is not about to collapse. Why?

Not only is North Korea more effectively insulated from outside influences than the countries of Eastern Europe, but it also has a nationalist mystique and a Confucian historical legacy that makes its totalitarian system more broadly accepted than was the case in Eastern Europe. The late Kim Il Sung is revered as the George Washington of his country.


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