Will North Korea Become US Ally?
By Bruce Cumings
Professor of University of Chicago
The sharp changes in North Korea policy accomplished by Kim Dae Jung and the Clinton administration were immediately challenged by George W. Bush, within weeks of his inauguration in 2001.
Seven years later, the Lee Myung Bak administration appears to think that a daunting rupture occurred between the ROK and the U.S., and that it was the fault of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun thus requiring the new administration to repair relations with Washington.
The Bush administration seemed to think so, too, by inviting President Lee to the presidential retreat at Camp David?in total contrast to the disastrous reception Bush gave to Kim Dae Jung in March 2001.
This negative tendency is almost always labeled “anti-Americanism,” as if Koreans were upset about Americans in general, rather than Bush’s policies in particular. But when we examine the evidence, it is quite clearly anti-Bushism.
Pew, Gallup, and domestic Korean polls uniformly show a sharp spike in unfavorable views of the United States, clearly dating from the advent of the Bush Administration in January 2001 and especially the “axis of evil” address in early 2002, and the deaths of two young girls when they were accidentally run over by a US military vehicle in June 2002. Many subsequent demonstrations and candle-light vigils led up to the surprise election of Roh Moo Hyun in December 2002. Critical views of the U.S. also helped his party win a majority in the National Assembly in 2004. But amid this “anti-Americanism,” some 30 percent of the Korean population continued to express a desire to emigrate to the US, and in a 2003 poll fully 45 percent of college students (presumed to be the vanguard of “anti-Americanism”) said they would choose American citizenship over Korean citizenship.
In the early 1990s, by contrast, nearly 70% of Koreans polled held favorable views of the US, and only about 15% were clearly negative. In 1994 this figure dropped to 57%, largely because of the June 1994 crisis with North Korea, but it returned to previous levels until the 1997 financial crisis (which also led to a brief spike in anti-Washington sentiment). In 2001 a Potomac Associates study found that 59% of Koreans were positive (47%) or very positive (12%) toward the US, 31% were neither positive nor negative, only 10% were “somewhat negative,” and none were “very negative.”
This orientation underwent “a sea change” after Bush came to power, according to William Watts of Potomac Associates, as 53% remained somewhat or very favorable, but 43% became somewhat or very unfavorable. According to Gallup Korea, among Koreans in their 20s only 22% were somewhat or very favorable, and fully 76% were somewhat or very unfavorable; this was also the only age group in which a majority (66%) wanted US troops to withdraw from Korea. In late 2002 Gallup Korea showed a majority negative view of the US across all classes and ages of Koreans, and dramatically lowered levels of trust in the USA. The Pew Global Attitudes Survey found in May 2003 that 50% of Koreans held an unfavorable view of the US, but among younger groups, fully 71% of those aged 18-29 had unfavorable views. More surprising, Pew determined that among those who had unfavorable views of the US, fully 72% expressed “general hostility toward America” rather than opposition to American policies. (This may suggest a hardening of negative attitudes over time, or it may be a mere blip.) Of course, all this made Korea no different from other American allies and friends: Germany fell from 78% favorable views to 45% during the same period, France went from 62% to 43%, and Turkey collapsed from 52% to 15%. ) Nonetheless, the US was still trusted much more than Japan.
In my view nearly all of the growth in anti-Bushism has come about because of (1) an abrupt shift in Washington’s policies toward the North, (2) continuity in South Korea’s Sunshine Policy from 1998 to early 2008, and (3) fears that South Korea could be drawn into a new war with the North.
As Seoul pursued a deepening reconciliation with the North, Washington reacted in opposite ways: first it jumped on that bandwagon (Clinton) and then it abruptly dismounted (Bush). The “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq provoked deep strains with Seoul for a variety of reasons, including a lack of proper consultation in moving American troops from Korea to Iraq, and a new policy of using US troops stationed in Korea in a regional conflict that might involve China. For these and other reasons the deepest estrangement in history emerged between Seoul and Washington?but it happened because of sharp policy change in Washington.
We can understand these difficulties in Korean-American relations better if we examine three defining moments that occurred as the year 2002 drew to a close: the publication of the National Security Council’s preemptive doctrine in September; James Kelly’s visit to Pyongyang in October, where he accused the North of having a second nuclear program; and the election of Roh Moo Hyun in December.
The preemptive strategy later called “the Bush Doctrine” raised the possibility that a new Korean War could erupt without Seoul’s approval or support; the second signaled the beginning of another long and still unresolved stalemate between Washington and Pyongyang, along with the possible fabrication of five or six atomic bombs in addition to the CIA’s longstanding estimate that the North has one or two weapons; and the last change brought to power the first president in South Korean history with no experience with or attachments to the United States.
The acute danger in Korea which South Korean leaders immediately grasped was that the Bush doctrine conflated existing plans for nuclear preemption in a crisis initiated by the North, which have been standard operating procedure for the U.S. military for decades, with Bush’s desire to preemptively attack regimes he does not like. American commanders in the South have long worried about a war accidentally breaking out through a cycle of preemption and counter-preemption, and retired commanders of our forces in Korea were privately appalled by the new doctrine. A few months after the new doctrine became public, a close advisor to President Roh told Bush administration officials that if the U.S. attacked the North over South Korean objections, it would destroy the alliance with the South. Leaders in Seoul repeatedly sought assurances from Washington that the North would not be attacked over Seoul’s objections or without close consultations. (It is my understanding that the Roh Moo Hyun administration did not get those assurances.) Since the North can destroy Seoul in a matter of hours with some 10,000 artillery guns buried in the mountains north of the capital, one can imagine the extreme consternation that the Bush doctrine caused in Seoul. These difficulties were aggravated by Donald Rumsfeld deciding to move 9,000 soldiers from Korea to Iraq, with the barest consultation, and concluding that the huge American base at Yongsan would be moved well south of the Han River, out of harm’s way. When I visited Seoul in August 2003 a prominent official told me that relations between the two militaries had never been worse.
I remember being skeptical of the intelligence behind Bush administration claims in October 2002 that the North now had a second nuclear weapons program, using Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU). But when I showed up for a university conference on North Korea in Washington shortly after James Kelly returned from Pyongyang, a bipartisan assemblage of experts (many from the Clinton administration) assured everyone that the information was solid, and that an “intelligence community” consensus had emerged that the HEU program was most worrisome. Pyongyang, they said, had gotten on Pakistani arch-proliferator A. Q. Khan’s gravy train, buying and putting in motion a bunch of HEU centrifuges that could yield a uranium bomb.
As it happened U.S. intelligence on the North’s HEU was no better on than it was Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, but it took five years to find that out. In the immediate aftermath of the February 13th, 2007 agreement between Washington and Pyonguag Joseph DeTrani, a longtime intelligence official, informed a Senate committee that intelligence agencies now pegged reports of the North’s HEU weapons program at only “the mid-confidence level,” which is jargon for information that can be interpreted in various ways, or isn’t fully corroborated. Pyongyang had indeed purchased thousands of aluminum tubes: but it turned out that these tubes weren’t strong enough to use in the high-speed rotors necessary for centrifuges. Evidence of these modest purchases had been transformed by Washington analysts into “a significant production capability” in 2002; since that time, however, the U.S. had turned up no evidence of the “large-scale procurements” that would be necessary for an HEU bomb program. Other officials said the degree of the North’s progress toward an HEU program was unknown; they did import some centrifuges from Pakistan?a mere twenty of them, as it turned out, when thousands are needed for production purposes?but no one knew what had happened since: so now the intelligence “consensus” had turned into “the HEU riddle.”
Bush’s Change of Mind
Given what happened in 2002, one would never have predicted the warming of relations between George W. Bush and Kim Jong Il that became manifest in the February 13, 2007 agreement on denuclearization a watershed the origins of which remain very murky. It will be remembered that Pyongyang celebrated American Independence Day in 2006 by blowing off seven missiles, including one long-range Taepodong 2 and several medium-range rockets, and followed that up with its first nuclear test in October. This led to United Nations sanctions supported for the first time by the DPRK’s old allies, Russia and China (although Chapter VII sanctions went through only after Moscow and Beijing made sure that they carried no implication of being backed by military force).
We also remember that Bush does not “reward bad behavior,” had always rejected direct talks with North Korea, and had stuck the North into his “axis of evil” while hurling various insults at Kim Jong Il (“pygmy”) and telling Washington insider Bob Woodward that he “loathed” Kim and wanted to topple his regime. “We don’t negotiate with evil,” Vice-President Dick Cheney averred in 2004?“we defeat it.” Yet the February agreement got hammered out in highly secret direct talks between Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and Foreign Minister Kim Gye-gwan in Beijing and Berlin, and was then presented to the Six-Party Talks for ratification (this China-sponsored modality was always a fig leaf for getting Washington and Pyongyang to talk to each other).
The back-to-the future quality of this agreement can be appreciated in the list of achievements: mothballing, disabling and dismantling the North’s plutonium reactors, relaxing sanctions and embargoes that Washington has laid on the North for decades, taking it off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, readmitting UN nuclear inspectors, getting a peace agreement finally to end the Korean War, and moving toward normalization of relations. All of these were accomplished or being negotiated when Bush came into office, but the Clinton administration had also worked out a plan to indirectly buy out the North’s medium and long-range missiles; it was ready to be signed in 2000 but Bush let it fall between the stools, and today the North retains all of its formidable missile capability.
Why did George W. Bush decide to make a deal with the North, even to the point of possibly holding his own summit with Kim (according to Washington gossip at the time) Clearly the Congressional elections in 2006 dealt a deathblow to Bush’s fond hopes of a Republican ascendancy in the new century, and turned him into the lamest of lame ducks. His core of support has evaporated at home and abroad: most of the neo-conservatives (Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton) are gone, soon his twin poodles Tony Blair and Abe Shinzo were also gone, and he is alone with a newly empowered State Department (and an embittered Vice-President). Also, of course, why did the North make a deal? In late 2006 I thought Pyongyang’s strategy was to become a declared nuclear power, suffer through sanctions for the next two years, and then hope to deal with the next American president. Something happened not in Pyongyang but in Washington, as Christopher Hill got a free hand to deal with Pyongyang.
The most likely explanation is not Bush’s weak political standing or the departure of neo-conservatives or a sudden end to internal squabbling, but a decision that Iran was the greater proliferation threat: if a Libya-like deal could be gotten with North Korea through give-and-take diplomacy, that would put tremendous pressure on Teheran to negotiate away its nuclear program; if Bush decided to use force against Iran (probably the leading subject of Washington scuttlebutt until a new intelligence estimate in late 2007 ), the North would have to be neutralized or simply forgotten. At this writing it is still impossible to know if this is true, and clearly right-wingers like Bolton still want to settle the hash of both Pyongyang and Teheran. In any case the Yongbyon reactor is again frozen and partially dismantled, a major achievement only in the back-to-the-future sense, and we are still waiting to see if the North will give up its nuclear program and if Washington will normalize relations with Pyongyang.
Back to the Future
The past seven years have seen an astonishing spectacle in which an American president zig-zagged from gratuitous insults thrown at the North Korean head of state, to charges of new nuclear programs based on flimsy evidence, installing the North into the axis of evil and allowing advisors to make open threats of war against the DPRK while doing little if anything as the North kicked out UN inspectors, manufactured nuclear weapons, tested both A-bombs and missiles, that is, as the North succeeded in provoking world outrage while showing it would not bend to Washington, Beijing or Moscow (just what hardliners in Pyongyang wanted, no doubt).
Then suddenly both sides climbed down from their polarized positions and jumped on Bill Clinton’s decade-old merry-go-round of give-and-take diplomacy. If we stipulate that North Korea won, that it got what it wanted, this was no more than what it had offered to do a decade ago: trade its nuclear program for aid and normalized ties to the U.S.? a proposition endlessly denied and derided among Washington pundits and the neo-conservatives of the Bush administration.
The successful diplomacy of the late 1990s was led fundamentally by Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae Jung, who finally convinced Bill Clinton that Pyongyang would give up its nuclear program and its missiles in return for a new relationship with the United States.
The U.S. could have its cake and eat it, too, President Kim thought, because Pyongyang would not object to the continued stationing of American troops in the South if the U.S. normalized relations with the DPRK.
Washington could lose an enemy and gain a neutral North Korea if not a friend or an ally against China, against a revived Russia, and as a check on Japan’s future course.
Bill Richardson, once a close friend of the Clintons who dramatically endorsed Barack Obama at a critical point in the 2008 presidential primaries, traveled to North Korea in April 2007 and reported on his return that North Korea sees itself “eventually as an ally of the United States; in other words, as an ally against China. They see themselves as playing a strategic role as a buffer between the U.S. and China.”
It is more likely that Pyongyang hopes to play the U.S. off against China, much as it did Moscow and Beijing in the long years of the Cold War.
There is no way to know if this new thinking has had an impact on President Bush, but it is a logical American strategy for 21st-century Northeast Asia, just as the 2007 Summit etched a new political economy for our time. In any case a bizarre sequence of events has placed George W. Bush closer to Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policy than to his own North Korea policies in the period 2002-2006. May he will even shake hands with “evildoer” Kim Jong Il before he leaves office. If so, well: better late than never.