A grand plan for the Korean Peninsula
By Sunny Lee
BEIJING - There is a brooding anxiety in South Korea that the United States
will eventually engage North Korea as part of a "grand scheme" it made with
China to manage the Korean Peninsula through six-party talks on the North's
Seoul fears such a move would leave it in diplomatic isolation from its staunch
ally, the US. The South's insecurities are wired into its DNA, given the long
history of more powerful countries manipulating Korea's destiny.
On October 6, South Korea's newly minted Unification Minister, Yu Woo-Ik, told
the foreign relations committee of the National Assembly, the nation's
parliament, "People say the US and China have come to recognize North Korea as
a de facto nuclear
country." Yu told lawmakers he disagreed with the view.
The US and China have never officially recognized North Korea as a nuclear
country, even though the latter has conducted two nuclear tests. The question
is why Yu took pains to emphasize such an obvious point to lawmakers?
On the same day, Yang Moo-jin, an expert on North Korea at Seoul's University
of North Korean Studies, argued in a column in the South Korean newspaper
Kyunghyang Shinmun, that, "Sooner or later, there will be a second high-level
meeting between Pyongyang and Washington." North Korean Vice Foreign Minister
Kim Kye-gwan met with Stephen Bosworth, Washington's point man on Pyongyang, in
The hardline Lee Myung-bak administration in South Korea doesn't want this to
happen unless North Korea pledges to relinquish its nuclear weapons first and
makes credible tension-thawing gestures on the Korean Peninsula.
A senior person in the know on international diplomacy surrounding North
Korea's nuclear development, courteously yet clearly admonished this writer for
"not seeing what is coming". That is, the US will eventually relent to North
Korea's demands to resume the six-party talks, shoving out Seoul. Involving the
Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States, the negotiations have been
stalled since December 2008.
All of this reflects a powerful sentiment in South Korea that has not been well
captured by outside observers.
The South Korean view goes like this: Washington and China were greatly alarmed
by North Korean provocations in 2010, the sinking of the Cheonan and
shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which jacked up regional tensions to an
unprecedented high. Observers began to talk about a full-scale war on the
Sensing the heat of the tinder box, the US and China, the two big players of
world affairs, stepped in. The theory surmises that at their January summit in
Washington, Chinese President Hu Jintao and US President Barak Obama agreed to
manage the Korean Peninsula through the six-party talks and by engaging North
The logic went that, as long as North Korea was engaged it would refrain from
provocations. According to this "grand plan" hammered out by the two world
powers, Beijing and Washington would goad the Koreas to the six-party talks
negotiations table and force them to reconcile with each other, with Washington
taking charge of its ally South Korea and Beijing taking charge of North Korea.
Currently, Washington takes sides with Seoul in demanding Pyongyang meet
preconditions for resuming the six-party talks, including a firm pledge to
denuclearization, reintroduction of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
inspectors to the North's nuclear program site, stalling further nuclear
testing and long-range missile launches, and improving inter-Korean relations.
North Korea insists on unconditional resumption. According to analysts, China
supports the North. The South's fear is whether the US will backpedal from its
commitment to Seoul.
For South Koreans who believe in the "grand plan", the resumption of six-party
talks is already inevitable. That is, although the US has been taking sides
with South Korea so far in keeping the preconditions, it is only a matter of
time before the US will go its own way to engage North Korea in consideration
of Washington's domestic political interest. They argue the US doesn't want
North Korea to make provocations during Obama's re-election campaign for next
year's US presidential election.
But do the US and China really have a "grand plan" to manage the Korean
Han Park, director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues at the
University of Georgia in the US, said it depends on how the US sees South
Korea. "South Korea is a strong ally of the United States. If the Lee Myung-bak
administration's hardline posture toward North Korea represents the genuine
opinion of the majority of South Koreans, that is, the will of South Korea,
then Lee's policy will be much more important to the United States.
"But Lee is also seen as a lame-duck leader. And the US will look at the entire
spectrum of the [South Korean] leadership as well as the incumbent opposition
party's view [which wants reconciliation with North Korea]. So, the US policy
will not be directly tied to Lee only. Washington is more realistic. It is more
engagement-oriented toward North Korea than any other time in recent months,"
Gordon Flake, a long-time Korea watcher and the executive director of the
Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, disagrees. "No. I see no evidence or no
realistic likelihood of a shift in US attitude on North Korea. Look. On Capitol
Hill, you have the appointment of [new US Ambassador to South Korea] Sung Kim
held up by Senator Jon Kyl and others, based primarily on the concerns that the
US policy [on North Korea] might change. You have a fierce opposition to any
progressive approach toward North Korea from the House [of Representatives]
side which the Republicans control," said Flake.
Kyl, a Republican senator from Arizona and staunch conservative on foreign
policy, has been blocking the confirmation process of Sung Kim, the nominee to
become a new ambassador to South Korea, for over two months.
"So, any change in US policy toward North Korea would meet considerable
political opposition, which means there has to be a clear reason for the US to
go forward in that direction. And there has to be a potential benefit the US
could gain. But so far, our allies, both South Korea and Japan, are opposed to
it. The US is certainly not going to do anything that will embarrass South
Korean President Lee Myung-bak," said Flake. Lee is scheduled to visit
Washington next week and meet with Obama.
John Park, senior research associate for Northeast Asia at the United States
Institute of Peace, believes South Korea's fear is an inherent Catch-22 it has
to work with. "That's an interesting dilemma right now. There are some in South
Korea who are definitely concerned about the US-North Korea talks going a
different way. They fear any progress there might leave South Korea behind," he
However, he prompts South Koreans with those concerns to closely examine the
behavior of the US and China.
"From the summit meeting by the US and Chinese leaders in January, we saw China
was encouraging North Korea to rejoin the six-party talks and improve relations
with South Korea. And likewise, the US has been also encouraging South Korea to
do the same. I don't think there was any secret deal on that. It was more of a
broader effort to improve the overall situation on the Korean Peninsula. For
them, it is not only important to restart the six-party talks, but also to
tackle the more immediate challenge of reducing tension on the Korean
Peninsula," said Park at the United States Institute of Peace.
Hwang Jae-ho, a security expert at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in
Seoul, agrees. "It's not necessary for the US and China to take the initiative
and push the Korean Peninsula issue in their own 'grand plan', disregarding
South Korea's feelings. [The US-China summit] was more of an agreement to
contain the tension so that things won't get out of control in the region."
Seoul's fear of having its fate decided by larger powers is rooted in history.
While the rival imperial ambitions of Russia and Japan led to a 1904 war for
dominance over the Korean Peninsula, Japan and China fought in 1894 over "the
right to govern Korea". Late South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun once
painstakingly explained to his American counterpart, George W Bush, that Korea
had been invaded by China "hundreds of times", in an effort to convince Bush
that he was not a "pro-China" figure.
Historically, relations with the US were also not all smooth sailing. The
Taft-Katsura Agreement, a 1905 agreement between the US war secretary William
Howard Taft and Japanese prime minister Katsura Taro, recognized Japan's sphere
of influence in Korea; in exchange, Japan recognized the United States's sphere
of influence in the Philippines. Japan ruled Korea under a brutal occupation
Furthermore, in 1980, when military leader Chun Doo-hwan gained power through a
coup and massacred democracy protesters in Kwangju, South Koreans looked to the
US to intervene. But the US recognized Chun's legitimacy for the sake of the
stability in the region. The US even invited Chun to visit Washington to help
him to sculpt legitimacy in South Korea’s domestic politics. Many South Korean
intellectuals felt betrayed by the US, which they hads looked up to as the
beacon of freedom and democracy in the world.
These historical scars are still fresh in the minds of South Koreans. So, when
they see the upcoming events organized by The Washington Quarterly and the
Freeman Chair in China Studies of CSIS that discuss topics such as "Should the
United States Abandon Taiwan?", they also tend to think this could be the
Flake, at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, views that South Koreans
who argue for the "US-China grand scheme" theory in a sense have been signaling
to the US to appreciate its sense of insecurity in its current hardline posture
toward North Korea and the need for US support. "I would call it a pre-emptive
anxiety. It's what we call a 'trial balloon'. Their primary objective is, by
expressing their concerns they are trying to dissuade Washington from thinking
Sunny Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Seoul-born columnist
and journalist; he has degrees from the US and China.
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