Hand in Hand for Korea: A Peace Process and Denuclearization

By Sigal, Leon V. | Asian Perspective, April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Hand in Hand for Korea: A Peace Process and Denuclearization

Sigal, Leon V., Asian Perspective

Pyongyang has a longstanding strategy of engaging with Seoul only when Washington is moving to reconcile. It has acted that way for two decades. Time and again, pressure has proved counterproductive; it has only led North Korea to dig in its heels. To Pyongyang, pressure was evidence of Washington's "hostile policy," and that "hostile policy" was its stated rationale for lack of progress in North-South reconciliation. That past is prologue as Six-Party Talks move to a new phase. The DPRK will not take irreversible steps to eliminate its nuclear facilities, let alone give up its fissile material, without abundant evidence of an end to enmity, which will take time. Whether it will do so even then is not certain, which is why significant bargaining leverage needs to be retained for that critical point in the denuclearization process. That does not mean holding up deeper economic engagement or steps toward peace on the Korean peninsula. Nor does it mean doing nothing to address regional security. The key to eliminating North Korea's nuclear arsenal is to move ahead on three other fronts at the same time: a Korean peace process, a regional security dialogue, and economic engagement.

Key words: U.S. foreign policy in East Asia, U.S.-Korea relations, North Korea, Northeast Asia, nuclear weapons


When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentlest gamester is soonest winner.

-William Shakespeare, Henry V

North Korea is fond of telling South Korea that unification can be resolved by Koreans on their own-or in the words of the October 2007 summit declaration, "according to the spirit 'by the Korean people themselves.'" Perhaps so, but that is not the way Pyongyang has dealt with Seoul over the past two decades. It has always subordinated inter-Korean relations to reconciliation with the United States. When Washington took steps to end enmity, Pyongyang moved ahead with Seoul. When Washington backtracked, Pyongyang spurned engagement with Seoul and blamed Washington's "hostile policy" for the lack of progress.

That history is germane to the issue at hand: linkage between a peace process on the Korean peninsula and nuclear disarming by North Korea. All six parties agree that peace can come to Korea only as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) abandons its nuclear arms and the means to make them. The problem is, "How can North Korea disarm if it is far weaker than any of its neighbors and fears for its survival?" Its answer has been that it can only feel secure enough to disarm if and when it is convinced that the United States, as well as the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) and Japan, are no longer its foes. Initiating a peace process in Korea is one way to demonstrate an end to enmity.

Concerted action is needed on two other fronts as well: beginning to address regional security concerns and deepening economic engagement, especially by meeting the North's food, energy and infrastructure needs.

The Past Is Prologue

The 1994 Nuclear Crisis and Its Aftermath

By the 1980s North Korea was militarily weaker than South Korea, and it could no longer count on its sometime allies, the Soviet Union and China. Economically, the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the economic transformation of China compelled North Korea to look elsewhere for aid, trade, and investment as well. In 1988, faced with ever deepening military and economic insecurity, Kim Il Sung decided to reach out to his three lifelong foes, the United States, South Korea, and Japan, to hedge against his dependence on China.

U.S. withdrawal of nuclear arms from Korea and willingness to hold its first-ever high-level meeting with the DPRK helped open the way to two historic inter-Korean accords in 1991: the Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation and the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

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Hand in Hand for Korea: A Peace Process and Denuclearization


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