Professors Il Hyun Cho and Seo-Hyun Park

Professors Il Hyun Cho and Seo-Hyun Park

By Stephen Wilson

In a filled Oechsle Hall auditorium on a Friday afternoon, Seo-Hyun Park, associate professor of government and law, and Il Hyun Cho, assistant professor of government & law and Asian studies, both noted scholars in Asian studies, move students, faculty, and administrators through the most important factors that shape U.S. and North Korean relations. Given the recent rhetoric between the leaders of each country and escalating actions, the audience is rapt. Covering history, economics, nuclear negotiations, and more, their top 10 list of questions and answers is a broad yet precise synopsis of international relations in East Asia.

Question 1: What is the history prior to the current nuclear crisis?

  • Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce, and Navigation: Signed in 1882, the treaty consisted of 14 articles that outlined the friendship, mutual assistance, and most favored trade status between the two countries.
  • Reforms: A group of reformers in Korea introduced but failed to sustain sweeping modernizing reforms in 1884. Many of these reformers (including Seo Jae-pil, later Philip Jaisohn, who briefly attended Lafayette College) are forced into exile, and subsequent reform attempts are largely unsuccessful.
  • Colonization: Japan colonized Korea from 1910 until the end of World War II.
  • Division: Following the war, Korea, like Germany, is divided along the 38th parallel into Soviet-occupied North and U.S.-occupied South.
  • War: On June 25, 1950, nearly 75,000 soldiers from North Korea cross the 38th parallel into South Korea. Thus begins the Korean War, which can be viewed as a proxy war between Soviet and Chinese forces in the North and United Nations (led by the U.S.) forces in the South. After three years of fighting, the country is decimated and requires massive aid in order to be rebuilt.
  • No Treaty: Despite the end of the conflict, no peace treaty is signed. The armistice signed by the United Nations on July 27, 1953, is a truce, a temporary measure that declares a ceasefire but fails to outline a peaceful settlement.

Question 2: Have there been prior confrontations between the U.S. and North Korea?

  • 1993: A security crisis begins as North Korea fires two test missiles in May, bans inspections of two sites, and threatens to withdraw from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. The crisis is averted as former President Jimmy Carter and North Korean leader Kim Il Sung negotiate a deal that freezes the nuclear development program and allows inspectors, while the U.S. promises to supply energy aid to replace worn North Korean power plants (since the country is cut off from access to oil and gas).
  • 2002: A second crisis ensues when North Korea is dubbed a member of the “axis of evil,” and it is revealed that it may be in the midst of a second uranium-based nuclear program. Having not replaced the power plants, the U.S. denounces an advancing North Korean nuclear program. In 2003 China mediates what becomes called the Six Party Talks as countries with various stakes in the negotiation sit across the table from each other: Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, the U.S., and North Korea. The talks stall by late 2005. In 2006, North Korea conducts its first successful nuclear test but then agrees to shut it down. A Joint Agreement is reached on shutting down its nuclear facilities in exchange for fuel aid. But talks break down subsequently when there are no further steps toward political normalization as demanded by North Korea and after its three-stage rocket launch and a second nuclear test in 2009.

Question 3: Why do tensions persist between the U.S. and North Korea?

  • Security: Following 9/11, the U.S. has pursued counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as a core global security concern. North Korea, conversely, has worked to protect itself due to fear caused by regular U.S. military exercises in the region as well as the threat posed by U.S. territories, military bases, and allies that surround them.
  • Mistrust: While the U.S. has expected the family dynasty that rules North Korea to collapse, the regime has remained in place. Both the U.S. and North Korea point to a litany of failed negotiations and false promises.
  • History: The strong and storied history of military, political, economic, and ideological confrontation between the two countries.

Question 4: What does North Korea want?

  • Security Guarantee: For North Korea, security comes from nuclear weapons. As learned from other countries that have acquired nuclear weapons, a stockpile will deter a U.S. invasion and ensure diplomatic talks first.
  • Political and Economic Stability: Weapons become a bargaining chip for future talks and long-term stability.
  • Regime Survival: Nuclear weapons, and the global attention they bring, will provide political legitimacy, status, prestige, and power … and may keep the family in power longer. As U.S. rhetoric becomes more hostile, the belief that nuclear weapons are needed may become more steadfast in North Korea.

Question 5: Will the North Korean regime collapse?

  • The family has survived famines, difficult economic sanctions, and the end of the Cold War. Kim Il Sung was a charismatic leader who carefully constructed a “cult of personality,” claiming to have defeated the West in the Korean War. Kim Jong-Il relied on the aura of his father and a coterie of elite military leaders whose loyalty was often bought with bribes and political status. Kim Jong-un demonstrates more ruthlessness and more resistance to Chinese interference.

Question 6: Will North Korea actually use the bomb?

  • While the current North Korean regime can be described as dangerous, defiant, and deplorable, it is not suicidal. So it is unlikely that it would use the bomb. There have been only two nuclear attacks in history, both against the Japanese in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. No country has used nuclear weapons against another since. There have been zero wars between nuclear weapon states. Furthermore, the difference in power between the U.S. and North Korea is staggering. The best estimates put approximately 25 nuclear weapons at North Korea’s disposal while the U.S. has more than 4,000 nuclear warheads with many delivery means, including ICBMs and bombers.

Question 7: What would be the consequences of a military clash?

  • A 1994 estimate by the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea was 1 million dead with economic damage of $1 trillion. This number does not take into account greater missile and nuclear capabilities that North Korea currently boasts. Today, those estimates would be much higher.

Question 8: Is there a Trump Effect?

  • Disapproval: According to one recent poll, 63 percent of Americans disapprove of President Donald Trump’s handling of North Korea while 36 percent approve, and 65 percent feel the President’s comments make the situation worse.
  • Diplomacy: In the wake of escalating tension in recent months, the percentage of Americans who favor seeking a diplomatic solution continues to grow, moving from 59 percent to 64 percent.
  • Confusion: East Asian countries appear confused by President Trump’s approach. One South Korean presidential adviser said, “I don’t see a unified message … What is needed right now is mutual restraint.”
  • Support: Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke for 3.5 hours at the Communist Party Congress, and there was not one mention of North Korea. The U.S. has sought help from China to shepherd North Korea, so this silence speaks volumes.

Question 9: What about U.S. allies?

  • Japan: In the midst of a political scandal, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe faced record low approval ratings earlier this year. After two North Korean missiles fired over Japan, Abe made a speech at the U.N., dedicating most of his time to North Korea’s provocation. His approval ratings then improved. His recent reelection victory speaks to the importance of this issue. Japan also has strengthened its alliance ties with the U.S., which is reinforcing its military presence in the Asian Pacific.  
  • South Korea: While deploying the U.S.-built missile defense system and reaffirming the importance of its alliance relations with the U.S., the Moon Jae-in government also seeks negotiations with Pyongyang.
  • Joint Exercises: Along with a number of bomber flyover missions to the Korean Peninsula, the USS Ronald Reagan carrier battle group was sent there for joint naval exercises with the South Korean navy.

Question 10: What do future scenarios look like?

  • Regime Collapse: If the North Korean regime fails, the global community faces a new crisis rife with refugees, tremendous humanitarian needs, political uncertainty, geopolitical rivalries, and need for a contingency plan to deal with North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear and chemical weapons.
  • Gradual Unification: The substantial economic gap between the two Koreas may cause significant economic strain. In addition, the future of the Kim regime would be at stake.
  • Continued “brinkmanship”: The status quo with North Korea’s repeated provocations is not sustainable.
  • Learning from Past Deals: The 1994 Agreed Framework and the 2000 agreement on a missile test moratorium offer possibilities for negotiated outcomes. However, negotiation would be much harder now given North Korea’s greater missile and nuclear capabilities.

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