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     Feb 6, 2013

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Korea: The case for withdrawal
By Geoffrey Fattig

For a regime which prides itself on a doctrine of juche self-reliance, the near-total dependency on its powerful neighbor has to be incredibly distressing. Some of this frustration was on display in October, when the government heavily criticized a Chinese company, Xiyang, over a failed mining deal, and Kim Jong-eun voiced a rare complaint that his country's mineral resources were being sold off too cheaply. Indeed, awareness of this over-dependency may have been one of the motivators behind new leader's somewhat surprising call for inter-Korean reconciliation during his 2013 New Year's Day address.

Testing the waters in the West Sea
If North Korea is truly serious about a change in its antagonistic

relationship with the South, there are few better places to test this proposition than in the disputed West Sea area. Since 1999, this volatile area has witnessed no less than five deadly incidents, including two in 2010 that were among the worst military engagements between the two sides since the end of the Korean War: the Cheonan sinking and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

The source of this dispute is the so-called Northern Limit Line (NLL), which has emerged as the thorniest issue between North and South in recent years. While historians can argue about the origins and validity of the line (those wishing for a more detailed discussion would do well to read Terence Roehrig's excellent background paper), in the practical sense, this is one area that will test the resolve of both North and South to make the kinds of concessions needed for peace.

The inter-Korean summit of 2007 attempted to address this problem with the creation of a joint fishing and maritime peace area in the West Sea, a multi-billion dollar port expansion in the northern city of Haeju, and joint development of the Han River estuary. Unfortunately, this summit took place with just a few months left in President Roh's term, and these projects were never implemented under the Lee administration. As noted previously, this decision poisoned inter-Korean relations almost from the day that Lee came into office.

With President-elect Park's stance backing implementation of previous inter-Korean agreements, the pieces of a deal are still there if she decides to pick them up. Given the North's chronic need for injections of foreign capital, she would likely encounter a receptive audience, especially if she sweetened the pot by offering additional economic incentives, such as increased humanitarian aid or the lifting of the May 24 sanctions. Despite her campaign rhetoric vowing not to give ground on the NLL issue, she might find herself more willing to make concessions if shifting security conditions made the South Korean president solely responsible for ROK military policy.

In return, the North would have to apologize for the Yeonpyeong Island attack and renounce further aggression in the area. From there, the two sides could work toward creating the kind of cooperatively administered area envisioned in the previous summit accord. Another idea would be to create a mechanism for joint patrols in the West Sea in order to prevent the illegal intrusion of Chinese fishermen into the area, which have been on the rise in recent years.

Forging a comprehensive solution to the West Sea dispute would be a major accomplishment, turning a flashpoint of conflict into the foundation for a new era of peaceful coexistence. The sight of naval vessels from North and South patrolling side by side as Korean fishermen hauled their catch out of calm, tranquil waters would be a tremendous boost for mutual trust. It would also provide the momentum needed to address larger concerns, such as the nuclear issue and an eventual peace treaty to replace the armistice ending the Korean War. By demonstrating its intention to peacefully resolve what has been such a difficult issue, the North would send an important signal that it is ready for serious negotiations regarding other major sources of dispute.

Making diplomatic overtures
Disengaging militarily from the Korean Peninsula does not mean that the United States should sit passively on the sidelines. Especially if progress on the West Sea issue and enhanced economic cooperation were made between North and South, it would be important for the Obama administration to follow up with its own diplomatic efforts. Rather than premise this discussion on the demand for complete denuclearization, however, it would be better to adhere to what Selig Harrison has referred to as the "three nos": no new weapons, no further tests, and no sales of weapons or military technologies to other nations.

The United States should approach these negotiations with an eye toward improving both the political climate between the two countries and the North's economic situation. The former would lessen the need for further nuclear tests and missile development, while an improving North Korean economy would mean that the regime would have less incentive to sell its weapons and technology to other countries or to terrorist groups, especially if doing so jeopardized the economic gains that would result from upholding their agreements.

The long-term objective is the creation an environment where the losses to North Korea if it chooses to revert back to weapons development outweigh the gains they get from playing by the rules. This environment has yet to be established, which is a primary reason that talks with Pyongyang continually lead nowhere. To get there, both political and economic concerns have to be addressed.

On the political side, diplomatic normalization with the United States has long been a goal of the North Korean regime. As a first step, Washington could take a page out of France's playbook and offer to establish a cultural office in Pyongyang as a precursor to eventual full diplomatic recognition. France is one of only two European Nations that does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK - the other being Estonia - but opened a cultural office in 2011 as a kind of intermediary measure to improve relations. Such a step would go beyond anything that the United States has offered before, signaling that it is in fact a serious about making progress in this area, while also allowing an out to hedge against North Korea failing to honor its side of the deal.

Transforming the role of the Six-Party talks
In order to improve the North's economic situation there should be a two-track effort consisting of both bilateral North-South engagement and a resumption of the Six-Party Talks. While the goal of the Six-Party forum should remain denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it should also not let this long-run goal preclude progress from being made in the short term. One way to do this is by establishing funding mechanisms in order to show North Korea the benefits that can be gained through cooperation with the international community.

An interesting idea proposed by Suk Hee Kim and Bernhard Seliger would be the creation of a Bank of North Korean Development, funded by the Six-Party members and administered by a China, the United States, and a third party, possibly Switzerland. This idea has several merits, not least of which is institutionalizing a mechanism for economic assistance and dividing the burden of financing projects among all six member states.

Institutionalizing funding is particularly important in order to avoid a repeat of the problems that plagued implementation of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which was the first attempt by the United States to address the problem posed by North Korea's nuclear program. In the words of Kenneth Quinones, a State Department official who helped verify the removal of spent plutonium rods at Yongbyon in the 1990s, "North Korea did in fact comply with all their stipulations under the Agreed Framework," while the American record of compliance was "quite spotty."

The mistrust generated by Washington's inability to live up to its end of the deal - largely a result of congressional foot-dragging in allocating funding to construct two light water reactors as a condition for the North ending its nuclear program - was undoubtedly one of the biggest motivators in North Korea's decision to undertake a clandestine uranium enrichment program, the discovery of which would spell the end of the accord in 2002. By collectivizing the financing mechanism among countries which all have a stake in a peaceful Korean Peninsula, such a breakdown would be much easier to avoid in any future agreements.

The most important role for the Bank would be to fund projects within North Korea that would allow it to improve its economy without having to resort to its old habits of selling weapons, narcotics smuggling, or counterfeiting American currency. Given the dilapidated state of North Korean transport and energy infrastructure, there are no shortage of proposals that could serve as pilot projects for this endeavor. If successful, this could lead to the type of conditional exchange envisioned under earlier agreements, whereby the North would agree to comply with certain demands, such as inspection of nuclear facilities and ending its missile program, in return for project funding. Verification measures could then be coordinated by the Six Party members in conjunction with international organizations, such as the IAEA.

A pragmatic approach in an age of limits
With its much publicized foreign policy "pivot," the Obama administration has rightly identified Northeast Asia as the new center of economic power in a rapidly changing world. The danger is that the president and his team will continue to cling to the 20th-century notion that American military might is the basis by which it can manage that change. As seen in the case of North Korea, this worldview can be quite problematic when practical considerations - in this case, the devastation that would result in the event of a new Korean War - force that card to remain in the deck.

To its credit, the Obama administration has recognized the need for cooperative action in dealing with the problems posed by North Korea. However, it hasn't yet been able to reach the conclusion that this help would be much more forthcoming if the American military were removed from the equation on the Korean Peninsula. Doing so would give China an incentive to take a firm stance when North Korea refuses to honor its commitments, and provide South Korea with the opportunity to better influence a change in the North's course of action.

The hope, of course, is that as they begin to see the benefits of cooperation with the international community, the North Korean government would become amenable to discussing giving up its nuclear weapons. As both the United States and South Korea have made repeatedly clear, denuclearization is a prerequisite to any peace treaty that can replace the now 60-year-old armistice that ended the Korean War. An improved security situation on the peninsula through the withdrawal of American military forces, a normalizing of its dysfunctional relationship with the United States, and coordinated economic assistance from its neighbors might finally convince the North to take this step.

Geoffrey Fattig is a graduate student at UC San Diego's School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. He currently lives in Seoul, Korea.

Used with permission Foreign Policy in Focus.

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