A Korean exit strategy for the US
Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and US Disengagement, by Selig Harrison

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Selig Harrison, one of America's finest journalists and foreign-policy analysts, has written on Korean politics for the past three decades. This book is a compendium of his thoughts on ending the convoluted 50-year regional standoff in Northeast Asia, and a reminder that the ball is in the US court to promote progress toward a unified, de-nuclearized and peaceful Korea.

Too often, Western commentators have taken a myopic view of North Korea as an irrational and belligerent "rogue state" that is the source of all troubles. Harrison presents an eagle-eyed historical and strategic sweep to demonstrate that the United States shares a large amount of blame for past tensions in the region and that US postures have to change to ease the path for North-South confederation and ultimate union.

Paralysis of US policy
US military commitments in the Korean Peninsula originated in the context of Cold War alignments that no longer exist. Since 1958, there have been no Chinese or Soviet troops in North Korea, and yet the United States continues to maintain 37,000 troops backed by the latest combat aircraft and a "nuclear umbrella" over South Korea. The ostensible justification for US force deployment in South Korea is the bellicosity of the North, while in private, US officials admit frankly that their presence is needed to make sure that the South does not drag the United States into a new Korean war, as South Korean president Syngman Rhee attempted from the late 1950s.

What Washington ignores is that as long as it retains an adversarial role on one side of the unfinished Korean civil war, reunification will be impeded. Pyongyang's security concerns, especially its fear of US fighter jets, have been completely overlooked by Washington, which fails to see that its nuclear and conventional positioning in the South are considered by the fragile and weak North as the primary threats to its survival. US thinking is also a prisoner of a time warp, based on the assumption that South Koreans still see the United States as a defender against communist aggression. Even such a respected peacemaker as former senator George Mitchell, whom I met last year, defended the status quo by telling me that US forces are "welcomed as friends" in Korea. The potent rise of anti-US nationalist sentiment in both South and North Korea is apparently invisible in Washington.

Another reason for paralytic US policy is misplaced belief that North Korea will collapse as a state and be absorbed by the South. Harrison opposes temporizing on redeployment of US troops because "North Korea would survive as a separate state for the indefinite future" (p 4). North Korean self-image is founded on pride in having survived an unequal encounter with the most technically advanced power in the world from 1950-53. Kim Il-sung's nationalist credentials as an inveterate anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter coupled with five decades of statist education emphasizing total loyalty to the nation have laid a strong ideological foundation for North Korea's survival. "It would be a mistake to underrate the underlying strength of nationalist feeling in North Korea" (p 20). Kim Jong-il has also begun a series of "economic reforms by stealth", ensconcing technocrats in charge of liberalization, allowing private farming and opening up trade and investment links with the South. In Harrison's estimation, the North Korean regime will "muddle through" for many years to come by playing off pragmatists against conservatives. The United States cannot keep banking indefinitely on naive hopes of Pyongyang's collapse.

Reformulating the US role
The future role of the United States will have a critical impact on North-South normalization and transition to unification. North Korea is wary of Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine Policy", inter alia due to the outgoing South Korean president's advocacy of a continued US military presence in Korea after reunification. The "gap between atmospherics and reality" over the Sunshine Policy can be explained by America's failure to relax economic sanctions or accord normal trade status to the North, as was promised in the 1994 nuclear-freeze agreement. Kim Jong-il expected the June 2000 summit to produce improved North Korean relations with Washington, but the George W Bush administration's hardline approach has now pushed Pyongyang to lock up significant North-South contacts.

Beyond minor issues such as economic aid, diplomatic recognition and regret for the US role in dividing Korea, what North Korea wishes is for Washington gradually to downsize its open-ended military presence, which sustains a "climate of indefinite confrontation". Coming down one step from its previous demand for absolute and immediate US military disengagement from the South, Pyongyang has indicated that it would "not object to the continuation of a modified US-force presence for a transition period when arms-control tradeoffs are explored" (p 115).

A revision of "Op Plan 5027", the US war contingency scenario in Korea, visualizes a massive attack using US air superiority to "abolish North Korea as a functioning state and reorganize the country under South Korean control". US refusal to shelve its right to first-use of nuclear weapons for deterring conventional North Korean advances, together with warnings by US generals of launching preemptive nuclear attacks with B-52 bombers if the North conducts war exercises near the Demilitarized Zone, have raised Pyongyang's determination to negotiate a change in US postures and "tripwire" deployments, in return for guarantees of ending the North's nuclear and missile programs.

On the issue of formally ending the Korean War too, unless the United States ceases to be technically at war with the North, no headway can be made. Harrison recommends that the US sign a direct bilateral agreement with North Korea for ending the armistice and then inviting the South to join in the new peace structure as a full partner. This accords with the historical fact that South Korea never signed the 1953 armistice.

Obstacles to US disengagement
Harrison points with acuity to a number of hurdles blocking a transformation of the US role from a combatant to a neutral "honest broker" between North and South. The psychological legacy of the Korean War has resulted in an exaggerated imagery of North Korea as a demonic new "yellow peril" in American eyes. South Korea has also lobbied intensely against the North by roping in sympathizers in the Pentagon, Congress and US defense industries that have a stake in continued militarization of Korea. Another irritant is the "semi-imperial trappings of US military life in Korea", where four-star generals command a country's army and enjoy unparalleled personal privileges. For Korea to have peace, war-economy interests will have to be smashed by a bold and visionary US president.

North Korean nuclear and missile proliferation have helped hawks in Seoul and Washington to argue against any compromise or negotiation with a member of the "axis of evil". But Harrison shows that this puts the cart before the horse, since North Korea's nuclear ambitions were "propelled from the start by the US nuclear posture towards the peninsula" (p 197). North Korea has repeatedly asked "formal US assurances to the DPRK [Democratic Republic of Korea] against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the United States". Pyongyang promised US envoy Robert Galucci its suspension of withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in early 1994 only after he publicly declared "assurance against the threat or use of force against the DPRK, including nuclear weapons". Former US president Jimmy Carter's landmark deal later that year for temporarily freezing the North's nuclear program also succeeded "precisely because he was not associated with the counterproductive threat of sanctions and preemptive nuclear strikes" (p 215).

The 1998 moratorium on Pyongyang's missile testing was similarly premised on reciprocal US gestures of normalization, although both Koreas have to consider a US-independent fear of Japanese missile development and plutonium reprocessing. "A unified Korea would be defenseless if Japan should convert its civilian nuclear and space programs to military purposes" (p 246). It is in Northeast Asian and US interests to persuade Japan not to start a "trilateral nuclear race" with North and South Korea (the South's atomic and missile capabilities far exceed the North's).

Preserving a neutral and secure Korea
In the concluding section, Harrison takes issue with the oft-cited statement that if the United States disengages and militarily quits the Korean Peninsula, regional great powers such as Japan, China and Russia will overrun unified Korea to fill the "power vacuum". Struggle among neighboring powers for dominance over Korea is indeed a sad fact of history, somewhat like Poland's, but Harrison avers that the objective conditions inside Korea have changed a lot in the last hundred years, making it impossible for a repeat of the 1894-1905 experience. The rise of powerful nationalist sentiment in both North and South will render a unified regime "less vulnerable to foreign manipulation than the politically quiescent and economically underdeveloped Korea of a century ago" (p 347). It will be extremely difficult for giant neighbors to manipulate internal factional divisions in a resurgent, vigilant and unified Korea, which will claim its own place as a major Asian power, alongside China, India and Japan.

Nonetheless, deep mutual distrust and animosity between Korea and Japan persist. South and North alike share a conviction that Japan does not want Korea to be united. Though Koreans are more reverential to Chinese cultural influence, they are also worried about the Manchurian land and petroleum seabed disputes with Beijing that could spill over into past forms of Chinese dominance in the peninsula. Russia is also dismayed by its marginalization from Korean affairs since 1991 and is eyeing "re-entering" Korea economically to safeguard Moscow's geopolitical interests in Northeast Asia.

To offset any danger to Korean independence, Harrison wants the United States to initiate a broader security dialogue with the three big neighbors, involving agreements not to deploy military forces, missiles or weapons of mass destruction in unified Korea. But for this offer to be a serious one, Washington has to begin reforming its own policy and implement the disengagement steps outlined earlier in this review. An egotistic, biased and one-sided approach in Washington cannot yield lasting peace.

Written at a moment when US military presence is increasingly seen as anomalous and insulting to national sovereignty in both North and South Korea, Korean Endgame has a clear-cut message: It is time for the United States to get out of Korea and act as a regional stabilizer rather than a destabilizing force.

Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and US Disengagement, by Selig Harrison, 2002 Princeton University Press, ISBN: 0-691-09604-X, Price US$29.95, 409 pages.

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Feb 1, 2003


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