Immediately after the September 11 attacks in New York, South Korean and U.S. forces went into a state of heightened security alert that the North claimed was “threatening,” leading Pyongyang to break off ongoing negotiations on family reunions that remain stalled even today. Despite this reversal in negotiations, North Korea reacted to September 11 by unilaterally moving to sign two UN antiterrorism treaties and later expressing its willingness to sign an additional five.

Instead of welcoming such signals, Bush administration officials chose the moment to make expansive new allegations about Pyongyang’s biological weapons program, which they later admitted were unsubstantiated by any new evidence. The president followed up these remarks by directly implicating North Korea in the new “war on terror” due to its development of weapons of mass destruction and weapons proliferation, and then retaining North Korea on the State Department’s recently revised list of nations that support terrorism.

This pattern continued apace even as the war in Afghanistan slowed. One week before the State of the Union address, Yang Hyon Sop, a top DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s formal name) official, publicly emphasized the “imperative to seek authorities-to-authorities dialogue, and all forms of nongovernmental talks and contacts, and work harder to boost them.” The Bush response: locating Pyongyang squarely on its infamous “axis of evil,” alongside such distant states as erstwhile enemies Iran and Iraq.

Building Missile Defenses on the Korean Peninsula, At Any Cost

To many observers in the region, the Bush administration’s policy of ostracizing the North seems aimed at justifying its expansive military plans in the region rather than actually reducing the threat from North Korea. This has been clearest in the calculated effort to undermine President Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine Policy.”

Before President Kim’s trip to the United States in March 2001, Bush administration officials privately asked him to offer a public statement of support for missile defense cooperation in Korea. Kim refused, subsequently issuing a joint statement with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin reflecting their shared “concern” with U.S. missile defense plans and their support for the ABM treaty. During Kim’s Washington trip, President Bush responded by publicly casting doubt on the Sunshine Policy and harking on the danger of the North Korean threat.

Since coming into office, the Bush strategy has been three-fold: stymie negotiations between Seoul and Pyongyang, undermine the engagement policy of President Kim while supporting his conservative adversaries, and exacerbate South Korean fears of the North’s military threat. The primary objective: build missile defenses in and around the Korean peninsula, despite the clear reality that they will never defend Seoul from the North’s short-range missiles–located a mere three minutes away.

Two-thirds of the Korean population and its sitting president have clearly expressed their opposition to missile defenses on the peninsula. Nevertheless, U.S. military cooperation with political conservatives and the South Korean military continues unabated. Recent reports reveal that the U.S. Air Force has a secret test force for missile defense components under the U.S.-South Korea Joint Command. Leading figures in the Bush administration held a warm reception for Lee Hoi-chang, the leading candidate for president from the Grand National Party and an avid missile defense supporter, during his January 2002 visit to Washington.

The Bush strategy is undermining inter-Korean negotiations. To this end, the administration revised a Clinton-era policy by refusing to place inter-Korean talks on the table at the recent trilateral negotiations between South Korea, Japan, and the United States. In further pressure on its allies to support the renewed hard-line policy toward the DPRK, a recently released CIA threat assessment projects dramatic new technological advances by the North Korean military. Now the president looks poised to use his February 17-22 trip to the region to further press U.S. allies to fall in behind the “axis of evil” approach in dealing with Pyongyang.

2003: A Breaking Point for Peace on the Peninsula

The Clinton administration’s lingering engagement policies toward North Korea will directly collide with the Bush policies by next year. In 2003 South Korea will have a newly elected president, while the U.S. is scheduled to deploy PAC-3 missiles on land and Aegis destroyers off the Korean coast. Not coincidentally, the North’s recently extended missile moratorium will also come to an end in 2003.

The sunshine policy suggests an alternative route. The 1994 Agreed Framework reaches several critical deadlines in the coming months. As part of this process, Kim Dae Jung’s famous “Berlin declaration” promised to start providing electricity directly to the North in 2003. Recognizing these deadlines, three U.S. Representatives have recently proposed a bill calling for the president to renege on U.S. commitments under the Agreed Framework. This would be a mistake.

Recent actions suggest DPRK officials may be signaling their interest in the incentives under the Korean Energy Development Organization (KEDO) process. Twenty-five DPRK nuclear power experts have just completed an extensive study tour in South Korea, preparing the way for over 200 plant operators to visit the South next year. Pyongyang has also allowed International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors a preparatory visit to its nuclear plants in late December.

Despite today’s antagonistic atmosphere, the KEDO agreements supported by the timetable of the Agreed Framework remain a realistic policy alternative. If the Bush administration can be slowed from its single-minded pursuit of deploying missile defenses on the Korean peninsula, then diplomats and activists can begin again the slow work of warming the cold war’s last glacial divide in Asia.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.