North Korean enemy should be made friend

February 27, 2002|By Ji-Yeon Yuh

CHICAGO -- President Bush said it again.

During his recent visit to South Korea, he peered at North Korea as he stood in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two nations, pondered an ax murder of American soldiers in that zone and mused, "No wonder I think it's evil."

He called North Korea a despotic regime that starves its citizens and feeds its military. He implied that while he was willing to talk, North Korea was unresponsive.

And once again I thought of the North Koreans I have come to know. Refugees from the famine that has afflicted that nation since 1994, they crossed the Tumen River into China in desperation. Farmers, intellectuals, Communist Party cadres, factory workers, artists and musicians, they left the certainty of starvation for the uncertain life of an illegal migrant.

They form a wave of refugees from North Korea the like of which hasn't been seen since the 1950-1953 Korean War. Out of a population of about 21 million, nearly a million or more have fled in the past six years. Some find their way to South Korea, but most are in China, where their presence is illegal.

You might expect them to agree with Mr. Bush. Yet most do not. The refugees I spoke with were nearly unanimous in their belief that North Korea is ready to open up. They are baffled that America views North Korea -- a starving, impoverished nation -- as a threat.

In their view, North Korea doesn't want confrontation, much less war, with the United States. North Korea wants respect and friends. So these North Koreans wish America, South Korea and Japan would make friends with North Korea. They want peace on the Korean peninsula because they believe that only peace will open the way for political and economic reforms in North Korea. Such reforms, they believe, will improve the quality of life for average North Koreans.

But making friends with North Korea also would improve the prospects of regional stability and, thereby, the national security of the United States. Friends don't wage war on each other. Friends don't carry out terrorist campaigns against each other.

So far, Mr. Bush isn't too hot at this making friends business. He undermined South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of engagement with the North and once again cast North Korea as a rogue nation that threatens the civilized world. Although he says he's willing to talk with the North, he's not willing to make it a priority. Too bad, because Mr. Bush's tough talk and aloof attitude are a disservice to both Koreans and Americans.

Most experts agree that North Korea no longer trains or funds terrorists. Along with the United States, it has signed seven of 12 international anti-terrorism agreements. Like the United States, it is considering signing the other five.

North Korean stockpiles of weapons are meager compared with those held by NATO, its military lacks fuel and other basic supplies and its missiles cannot reach the United States.

Yet the Korean peninsula is still poised for military conflict. The Korean War ended not with a peace treaty but with a mere truce, and America keeps about 37,000 troops in South Korea.

Make friends with North Korea and any threat of conflict is eliminated. Other Republican presidents have called this constructive engagement, and it worked quite well with countries such as China. Under President Bill Clinton, the United States was also beginning to work with North Korea. Fears of North Korea developing nuclear weapons led to an intense series of talks that culminated in the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Under that agreement, North Korea shut down its nuclear reactors with their potential capacity for yielding weapons-grade plutonium. It signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In return, America, Japan and South Korea agreed to help North Korea build light-water reactors and provide a supply of fuel oil. More progress was made with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit to Pyongyang in October 2000, and North Korea was moving toward an agreement to freeze testing and deployment of mid-range and long-range missiles.

It's not too late for Mr. Bush to return to the long, complex process of making friends.

First, make talks with North Korea a priority. Assign a special envoy and offer a suitable inducement to bring North Korea back to the table.

Second, drop the embargo on North Korea and allow it to be integrated into the world economy. This would encourage economic and structural reforms within North Korea.

If Mr. Bush can open North Korea to peaceful engagement with the rest of the world, he will be remembered with far more reverence than if his tough talk further alienates Pyongyang or, worse, precipitates the Korean War, Part II.

Ji-Yeon Yuh is an assistant professor of history and a core faculty member of the Asian-American studies program at Northwestern University.

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