Scholarly panel shares perspectives with Korean journalists

Map of Korean peninsula[By Mike Foley, originally published online in the BYU-Hawaii Newsroom, May 27, 2003]

A group of South Korean journalists accompanied by two Latter-day Saint authorities from that country recently met with compatriots on campus and heard a scholarly panel discuss the history and status of the Korean Peninsula.

The panel, which met in the McKay Auditorium on May 15, included Dr. Edward J. Schultz, Director of the Center for Korean Studies at the University of Hawaii/Manoa; Dr. Sung Ho Sheen, Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu; and Dr. Michael Allen, Associate Dean of BYU-Hawaii’s College of Arts and Sciences, who acted as the moderator.

Dr. Schultz led off by saying with the collapse of the Soviet Union he and others “began to feel that East and West were finally going to come together as monolithic Communism seemed to have been shattered.” For example, he pointed out former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung had instituted a sunshine law, and U.S. President Bill Clinton had signed a 1994 agreement to bring the two Koreas, Japan and the U.S. closer together. “There was significant hope that maybe we would begin to open up and have ties with North Korea,” he said.

In 2001, however, President George W. Bush designated North Korea as part of an “axis of evil,” Schultz continued. “I would say right now we’re once again in the middle of a cold war with North Korea; and the Korean Peninsula, which was divided in 1945, seems as divided today as it ever was once before.”

He explained America divided the peninsula along the 38th Parallel at the end of World War II, largely to prevent Russia from taking over the whole area. Japan had previously ruled Korea since 1910. “We were convinced this was a temporary measure, and that we would eventually get together with the Soviet Union, and reunification would occur.”

“It was a very unnatural division in 1945, because North and South Korea had basically been a unified country for 2000 years. They had a symbiotic relationship with each other. The northern part of the country tended to be industrial and had many natural resources. The south was the bread basket where all the food was produced,” Schultz continued. He added that even though historically, the region has gone through many governance changes, and that even today South Korea has internal regional differences, there are still strong Korean roots that may “bring about reunification.”

Allen focused on several critical bilateral regional relationships, “within which the U.S./Korea relationship is embedded. All of these bilateral relationships are unsustainable in their present form.” For example, Allen said North and South Korea, which seemed to be drawing somewhat closer to each other a few years ago, more recently were shooting at each other’s navy.

Also, America’s growing relationship with the People’s Republic of China led Beijing to host the recent trilateral discussions with North Korea; but Allen pointed out the U.S. may continue to disagree on some issues with China, such as the status of Taiwan. “I don’t think there is an easy resolution on those complex issues,” he said.

Allen said he believed great disparities and practical costs will eventually outlast China’s ideological ties with North Korea. To illustrate, he told of recently visiting a small Chinese town on the border, from where it was easy to see North Koreans on the other side of the Yalu River: “The most striking contrast is at night. On the Chinese side there’s a lively city. If you look across to the North Korean side, you see nothing. It’s completely dark. There’s not a soul or light to be seen.”

Allen pointed out even the U.S. and South Korea disagree on their respective North Korea policies, as well as recurring anti-Americanism over the strong U.S. military presence.

Dr. Sheen, an authority on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, said he sees the North’s recent nuclear threats as an issue of “intention versus capability. The South Korean people tend to amplify North Korean intentions when they think about the nuclear weapons program in North Korea. They don’t believe North Korea will actually use nuclear weapons against their brothers and sisters in the south. Both know there’s no hope for North Korea to win a war against a U.S. alliance. Unless North Korea becomes really desperate, there’s no possibility of them launching a nuclear attack against South Korea. They [South Korea] tend to see North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as a bargaining chip rather than a real threat.”

“The U.S. perception of North Korea is very different,” Dr. Sheen continued, pointing out that the U.S. has transferred the threat from the former Soviet Union to rogue states, including North Korea, in relation to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. “In that sense, North Korea has become public enemy number one. They don’t care whether North Korea will use them or not, as long as there’s a possibility or capability of using these kinds of weapons, that’s what matters most.”

“[But] South Korea is already under the enormous threat posed by North Korea’s conventional weapons. Seoul is within the range of 11,000 North Korean artillery,” Sheen said, adding that North Korea also has intermediate-range missiles that reportedly have chemical and biological capabilities which can already cover practically every part of the Korean Peninsula.

“From the South Korean perspective, whether it’s nuclear war or conventional war, it doesn’t matter. To them, the first priority is to prevent any kind of military confrontation on the peninsula. The moment there is any kind of confrontation, what South Korea has achieved over the past 50 years will be gone,” he said.

Asked if those fleeing North Korea into China were a problem, Dr. Schultz said he believes the Chinese government would be very concerned with refugees “if the North Korea government were to suddenly collapse. There are many reasons why they don’t want North Korea to collapse.”

In response to a question, Schultz pointed out Japan and North Korea have significant trade agreements. “There’s also a large Korean population living in Japan who send a lot of cash to North Korea. If Japan decides to block those types of transactions, they could apply a lot of pressure; but they won’t do it, unless the U.S. takes the lead in imposing economic sanctions. Japan must not be left out of the equation.”

Asked how North Korea is reacting to President Bush’s aggressive stand,

Dr. Sheen said the president’s tough stand “really contributes to North Korea’s defiance, and aggravates the crisis. Yet, at the same time, North Korea has breached the agreement it made in 1994. Their response is not helping them at all. I’m hearing that even the Chinese are very shocked at their response.”

To a journalist’s question if the bargaining between North Korea and the U.S. represented any kind of threat to South Korea, in light of the war in Iraq, Dr. Allen said he believes the U.S. has not taken any military options because of South Korea. “The U.S. has allies in the Middle East, but no depth of diplomacy like it has the potential with South Korea

Asked about the status of South Korea’s sunshine policy, Dr. Schultz said it had “started to look like a lot of give, and very little take, in what should be a give-and-take compromise,” and had obviously failed. “The more and more you have human contact, this is how you break down this isolation North Korea has gotten itself into. That obviously has now failed.”

“It didn’t do what it was supposed to do,” Schultz added, but he also thought it was worth trying compared, for example, to the cost of an F16. “To me, if you can avoid warfare and destroying lives, and it doesn’t cost us our integrity, let’s go ahead and do it.”

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