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     Feb 6, 2013

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Korea: The case for withdrawal
By Geoffrey Fattig

For a country that is often portrayed in Western media as unpredictable, the North Korean regime has actually proven to operate on a quite limited, if rather provocative, cycle. On the heels of December's successful missile test, the recalcitrant nation is now preparing for a third test of its nuclear weapons program.

If that script seems familiar, that's because each of the North's previous nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, were directly preceded by ballistic missile launches. With the next test expected to be imminent, the main difference this time is that the international community will not have had to wait as long for the other shoe to drop.

For their part, the United States and its allies have shown

themselves to be following an equally unimaginative playbook, predictably responding to the latest missile test with a push for increased sanctions in the United Nations Security Council. The "successful" result of this diplomatic initiative was announced in late January, with American UN ambassador Susan Rice claiming that "the new sanctions and tightening of existing measures concretely help to reduce the growth of North Korea's weapons programs."

With the United States threatening even further sanctions in the event of a nuclear test, one has to wonder how effective these exercises really are. Given that similar pronouncements were made after previous sanctions were imposed on North Korea, it is easy to be skeptical as to whether the new measures, which expanded restrictions on North Korean companies and added four more of its leaders to a travel blacklist, will have much of an impact. As long as China continues to prop up its erstwhile dependent, all this latest round of politicking may have done is ensure that the test-sanction-test cycle remains unchanged.

As unsurprising as this latest turn of events is, it is also disappointing. The recent leadership changes in both Korean capitals offered some hope that inter-Korean relations might be set on a more positive path after the five years of tension and hostility that marked the Lee Myung-bak presidency in the South. Recognizing Lee's hardline policy as a failure, incoming South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye has advocated for renewed engagement with Pyongyang, going so far as to call for the implementation of previous Korean summit agreements.

In contrast, one of President Lee's first actions upon taking office in early 2008 was to cancel the previous year's summit accords made between the late Kim Jong-il and former South Korean leader Roh Moo-hyun, sending relations into a tailspin from which they have yet to recover. Hopes were further stoked when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un marked the start of 2013 by calling for an end to confrontation and reconciliation between the two sides.

Unfortunately, any cause for optimism was quickly snuffed out after North Korea responded angrily to the latest round of sanctions, lashing out at the UN, threatening further nuclear and missile tests directly targeting the United States, and ruling out any talk of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. If the same story continues to unfold, we are going to be in for another four years of the "strategic patience" approach that marked the first Obama term, a policy which essentially translates to "sit back and watch while North Korea improves on its existing missile and nuclear weapons programs."

Necessity of a new approach
At this point, the Obama administration needs to realize that it is holding a weak hand and fundamentally change its strategy for the Korean Peninsula.

As the supplier of roughly 90% of North Korea's fuel and energy imports, China is the sole player with any leverage at all over the regime's behavior. However, because Beijing's biggest fear is the collapse of the Kim regime and the ensuing fallout - ranging from a massive influx of refugees to the possibility of a unified Korea with an American military presence on its northeast border - the Chinese government has been unwilling to take the kind of measures that would lead North Korea to consider altering its course of action. Despite showing support for a tougher line against the North at the UN, the situation will likely persist as long as the political calculus for Chinese leaders remains the same.

Meanwhile, the United States' main source of leverage against the North is the military option, which both sides are fully aware is off the table except as a defense mechanism in the case of an attack on the South. Because of this, the 28,500 American troops stationed in Korea are in the unique position of causing friction by their mere presence, even as the probability of them being deployed is quite low.

The US-South Korea Status of Forces agreement, whereby the United States commands both the American and ROK military forces, was helpful in preserving the status quo on the Korean Peninsula in the decades following the Korean War, but more recently has become an impediment to any progress for peace. Apart from discouraging more proactive involvement on the part of the Chinese government, it also allows the North to blame the United States for all of the problems of the peninsula and absolves South Korean leaders from having to make tough choices about their security situation. This creates a kind of inertia where all sides are discouraged from taking any real action that could alter the security dynamic of the region.

Given these factors, it is time for the Obama administration to start withdrawing the American military from Korean soil. Not only would such a move save billions of dollars annually (US$15 billion, according to a 2006 article by the Cato Institute's Doug Bandow) at a time when the cost of maintaining America's global garrison is coming under increasing scrutiny, but it would shift the impetus for negotiating solutions to the long-running dispute squarely onto the shoulders of the key players in the region. It would allow the United States to free itself from the burden of being South Korea's protector and become a more even-handed partner for peace.

Raising the status of South Korea
Lim Dong-won, who served as Unification Minister under Kim Dae-jung, succinctly described the fundamental problem in inter-Korean relations. "South Korea," he said, "must recover its independent identity as the main player in negotiations with North Korea."

This is particularly important with regards to the nuclear issue. The Basic Agreement signed between the two sides in 1992 calls for a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, one of the reasons that Seoul has been unsuccessful in pressing the matter is because of the current security dynamic, as well as its subservient military agreement with the United States. As North Korea repeatedly makes clear, its nuclear missile programs are primarily aimed at the United States, not South Korea. What incentive, then, does the North have to take seriously South Korean demands for denuclearization when Washington is its stationing troops and controlling all military forces south of the DMZ?

Withdrawing its forces and handing over operational control of the ROK military to South Korea - currently scheduled to take place in 2015 - must be part of any American strategy. The Obama administration cannot allow this to be deferred again, as was the case in 2010, when the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan led to President Lee requesting that the transfer date be pushed back until 2015.

While assuming control of its military would force the South to confront difficult choices regarding its security, it would also make any strategy of economic engagement far more effective. As pointed out by Bruce Cumings, one of the major factors undermining the Sunshine Policy in the early 2000s was the abrupt policy pivot by the incoming George W Bush administration, which scrapped the Perry Process of engagement with North Korea and instead placed strict conditions on further negotiations. After the policy shift in Washington, the North remained willing to accept South Korean aid, but became far less amenable to making concessions over its weapons programs. By allowing South Korea to assume control over its security functions, such coordination problems would be eliminated.

North Korea: A willing partner?
Despite the North's recent military bluster, there are signs that Kim Jong-un has been cautiously embarking on economic reforms during his first year in power. These include a new agricultural policy allowing farmers to keep 30% of their crop rather than having to turn it completely over to the government, and a plan to legalize private investment through the auspices of state-owned enterprises.

Noted North Korean expert Andrei Lankov also suggested that the full-scale overhaul of top leaders in the military would allow the regime to shift its focus away from its long standing songun (military-first) policy. While the significance of these moves is yet unclear, taken together they would seem to merit some optimism that the nature of the regime may be changing ever so slightly.

Attempting to interpret North Korea's intentions is never straightforward, however. Indeed, many analysts have taken the missile tests and bellicose statements to mean that the regime is the same as it ever was, and that renewed attempts at engagement are likely to fail as long as this remains the case. However, given Kim's youth and inexperience, it is possible that the new leader feels that such measures are necessary in order to bolster his credibility and gain enough leeway with conservative forces in the North to begin implementing economic reforms.

There was also speculation that the timely reporting of Park's victory in North Korean media, in contrast to previous elections when such announcements were either delayed or simply non-existent, mean that Pyongyang is seriously hoping to improve ties with the South after five years of strained relations with the Lee administration.

As close as 'lips and teeth'?
Though it may seem counterintuitive, a further factor working in favor of engagement is the North's increasing dependency on China. Over the past five years, trade between the two countries has tripled, with China now accounting for roughly 70% of the North Korea's $8 billion in annual trade. This recent surge in economic interaction has taking on many forms, including increased resource extraction by Chinese firms operating in the North, development of a special economic zone at the port city of Rason, and a guest-worker program begun earlier this year allowing thousands of North Koreans legal status to work in the border regions of northeastern China.

Much of this increased economic activity with China has occurred at the same time as inter-Korean trade dropped significantly during the hardline Lee administration. A trend that was already on the decline further accelerated in 2010 with the May 24 sanctions imposed unilaterally by the South in response to the Cheonan sinking. These sanctions alone were estimated to have put economic losses to North Korea at roughly $2 billion, according to a report from the Hyundai Research Institute. During that time, China has stepped in to fill the void.

On the surface, then, it would appear that the two long-time allies have become closer than ever. However, the statistics mask a much more complicated picture. The leaders in Pyongyang have long been wary of dependence on China, with veteran North Korea analyst Selig Harrison observing that, "for North Korea, the need to make ever more political and economic concessions to China is abhorrent." As FPIF's John Feffer notes, the Korean word summing up this state of submission is sadaejuui, which loosely translates to "toadyism," and has its roots in the historical relationship between the Joseon Dynasty and the Chinese empire.

Continued 1 2  

Resolve the North Korean nuclear issue (Jan 29, '13)

Time to end the Korean War
(Jan 9, '13)



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