Q & A with Tom Kim

by Kristina Brooks

The issue of United States’ relations with North Korea is again a hot one. Apparently due to growing concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, the Bush administration seems to be changing its approach to North Korea. As of May 18, 2006, members of the senior administration have recommended that the U.S. begin negotiating a peace treaty with North Korea, despite a lack of resolution on their nuclear weapons program. I sat down to discuss these latest developments with Thomas Kim, Scripps assistant professor of politics and international relations, and the director of the Korea Policy Institute, an educational and policy think tank in Los Angeles that promotes a pragmatic U.S. policy toward Korea.

How would you characterize current U.S. policy toward North Korea?

The U.S. government has yet to figure out a long-term policy toward North Korea. The problem is there are still those in the U.S. government who believe that the North Korean government will collapse. Virtually all Korea scholars in the 1990s predicted that North Korea would collapse because there were extensive floods and droughts.The resulting famine killed potentially one tenth of the population— what could be over 1 million people. They also lost their trading partners. Yet, the average North Korean tends to support their government, whether we like it or agree with it, and North Korea just keeps plugging along. The North Korean economy has been on the upswing over the past few years; it is not going to collapse.

The belief in and advocacy of regime change was in vogue for the first four years of the Bush administration; only recently has the administration acknowledged that regime change is not going to happen, and we can’t go in militarily. Strategic military strikes don’t work because there are hardliners in North Korea, so if you take out [Secretary General of North Korea] Kim Jong-il, who are you going to get? Probably people who are more anti-U.S. than the current administration.

What’s the state of relations between North and South Korea?

Really dynamic negotiations have been going on between North and South Korea since June 15, 2000, when there was a historic summit meeting between the countries’ leaders. Prior to the rise of the “Sunshine Policy,” after the 2000 summit, the average South Korean was educated to believe that North Koreans were evil, and Kim Jong-il was regularly depicted as a madman. This all changed in 2000. All of the mechanisms that promoted anticommunism have fallen by the wayside. Now, Kim Jong-il is described as pragmatic, in favor of unification. Over 100,000 South Koreans have gone into North Korea since 2000. Lo and behold, they have found that North Koreans are not crazy, and they don’t have devil’s horns. They speak the same language, and they have some of the same customs and traditions. The way South Koreans have begun to think about the North has really changed.

Cultural, political, and economic negotiations have been going on that are changing the face of the peninsula, changing the way the entire northeast Asian region is going. For example, farmers and agriculture experts in the north are talking with those in the south; there are tons of cultural exchanges; and North and South Koreans are planning on marching together and fielding a unified team in the next Olympic Games.

On the military side, the DMZ [demilitarized zone between North and South Korea] is often called “the most dangerous place in the world” by American politicians. You’d never know that they have taken down a lot of the propaganda and the fencing, de-mined a lot of the area, and that they no longer blast each other with propagandistic music.These are not temporary moves; they represent a permanent change.

How are relations between the U.S. and South Korea?

South Korea is the U.S.’s seventh largest trading partner, and the nations have been historic allies over the last 50 years. All of these relations now forming between North and South Korea are creating tension between the U.S. and South Korea because virtually none of the changes are being discussed in the U.S. In every sector of the Korean economy, there are exciting developments, from farmers to peasants to conglomerates, from sporting officials to musicians. Yet, from the South Korean perspective, all the U.S. is talking about is nuclear weapons and human rights. That is disconcerting to a lot of South Koreans, especially young South Koreans.That’s not to say that all the problems have been fixed, but the sentiment in Korea is that they are on a clear path to unification, and you’d never know that here in the U.S.

Anti-Americanism began building in South Korea back in the 1980s. South Koreans began to believe that they were able to overthrow the dictatorship that ran their country, not with the help of the U.S. government, but in spite of it. Thus, in 1987, when the ruling South Korean dictatorship fell, there was not a lot of gratitude toward the U.S. government. This hostility was enhanced in the 1990s. Then, in 2000, the summit between [South Korea’s President and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize] Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il really altered the popular framework.

The sea change in popular opinion toward the U.S. in South Korea over the last six years has only exacerbated anti-U.S. militarism. There have been U.S. troops in South Korea for the past 50 years. But now, when North and South are reconciling, the presence of U.S. troops doesn’t seem as relevant.The Status of Forces Agreement between South Korea and the U.S. has a number of provisions, but one is that when U.S. troops are accused of crimes, they are turned over to U.S. military tribunals. Tens of thousands of petty and violent crimes that have accumulated over the years have never been addressed. Even conservatives in South Korea are beginning to say this is a problem. This would not have been an issue 20 years ago, when there was more sympathy in South Korea toward U.S. troops.

What will the unification of North and South Korea mean to the U.S.?

Inasmuch as unification is happening right now, and the U.S. government is failing to take that into account, it is bad for U.S. interests, including U.S. business interests. Unification means all sorts of things for the U.S. What do you do about trade relations and trade agreements, when you start to see North and South Korea make products together? What do you do with the nuclear weapons issue when South Korea doesn’t see it as nearly the threat that the U.S. does? (The key issue for South Korea is unification, and nuclear weapons comes in a distant, distant second or third.)

What do you do with U.S. military troops, which have been serving as a trip wire to prevent North Korean invasion? The U.S. is currently re-forming its military across the Pacific Islands, redeploying in various ways: how do you take into account that redeployment in the context of unification? There’s increasing pressure in South Korea to either minimize or remove 30,000-odd U.S. troops that are still there.

Korean-American businesses and South Korean businessmen are ahead of the curve because they see the connections North Korea is making with China. North Korea has been reaching out to all of these different countries, but the U.S. is not getting ahead of that unification curve and trying to anticipate it. At the end of the process, if North and South unify, not with the help and support of the U.S., but in spite of the U.S., that will not be good for U.S. interests. Already the perception in South Korea is that the U.S. government is the biggest hurdle to unification. And that is not a good thing for U.S. policy interests.

The U.S. is not really in a position to exert direct influence over the unification process in accordance with our own interests. What’s really striking is that North Korea is virtually asking for the U.S. to have more influence because North Korea wants to normalize relations. They want to end the Korean War and move on. The U.S. failure to think about long-term policies really cripples our approach to North Korea.

What about the issue of human rights in North Korea?

Clearly, there are human rights issues in North Korea.The critical question is: how do you actually create the conditions for positive changes in human rights in North Korea? Politically, I’d say that the human rights issue didn’t exist until the nuclear weapons issue fell apart. If you look at the rhetoric coming out of the early Bush administration, it was “nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons.” Then, at a certain point, the administration figured out that they weren’t going to get a great deal of leverage with that, and they switched over to “human rights.” For two years, it was all about nuclear weapons, with no mention of human rights, and then—boom—it’s human rights. Now, you can barely find a Republican member of Congress who talks about nuclear weapons. That’s the kind of thing that South Koreans look at and find suspicious.

For North Korea to receive human rights “lessons” from the U.S. just isn’t going to work. There are ways to approach them in a quiet, low-key manner that won’t shame and embarrass the North Korean people.

What does the future hold for U.S. relations with Korea?

It’s hard to predict what will happen with U.S. policy since it has been so incoherent. The unification ship is sailing. South Korea has an upcoming presidential election, but a change in the South Korean government won’t change the fact that major South Korean firms have invested billions of dollars in unification. Everything else has to be understood in the context of imminent unification—nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, human rights, economic development. You can bet dollars to donuts that everyone in South Korea is planning their future in the context of what a phased unification will look like.

The main impetus behind the formation of the Korea Policy Institute is to correct popular misperceptions and to talk to the media and to political leaders, so they can promote a more pragmatic and better informed policy that takes into account recent changes on the Korean peninsula. Rather than be passive or against unification, the U.S. could get involved in shaping unification in accordance with U.S. interests.