Enhancing Security, Cooperation, and Peace on the Korean Peninsula

(27- 29 Jan 2004)


The APCSS conference on "Enhancing Security, Cooperation, and Peace on the Korean Peninsula" examined recent domestic changes and evolving military threat from the DPRK; evaluated the prospects for the establishment of a self-reliant armed force structure in the ROK; considered the long-term sustainability of the U.S.-ROK alliance in the context of the ROK domestic trends and global U.S. defense transformation strategy, examined the impact of the U.S.-ROK military force realignment on the peninsula on the global war against terrorism, regional Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) proliferation concerns, the South-North Korean conflict resolution, U.S.-Japanese security alliance, the engagement with rising China, and on other security relations in  Northeast Asia; as well as explored the prospects for developing a multilateral regional security architecture in  Northeast Asia.


Fifty-nine policy practitioners and academics from six countries attended the conference. The countries represented were:  U.S., Republic of Korea, Russia, Taiwan, Australia, Japan.


The conference participants observed that the perceived U.S. policy of unilateral intervention in the aftermath of September 11th visibly unsettled Northeast Asia.  In a region where perceptions matter and rhetoric counts, there seems to be a linkage between 9/11 and popular perceptions of the U.S. as a growing threat to regional security; as a “passive-aggressive hyper-power, angry and suffering from a post-traumatic syndrome.” There are also fears that as part of its defense transformation strategy, the U.S. is intent to reduce its military presence in Northeast Asia, leaving an unwelcome power vacuum behind.  Hence, a splash of government rhetoric advocating increasingly self-reliant defense capabilities and military doctrines, revival and proliferation of long-dormant nuclear ambitions, and acquisition of advanced Theater Missile Defense capabilities on a region-wide basis, including the DPRK, ROK, PRC, Russia, Japan, and Taiwan.  The question remains, however, whether a traditionally war-prone region where many great power interests often clash, full with more defense self-reliant states that are less dependent on the U.S. security commitments, will be more stable and peaceful in the long run or not.


There was a broad-based consensus at the conference that the North Korean crisis was chronic, structural, and complex in nature; that Kim Jong Il and the North Korea People’s Army (KPA) were in total control of the DPRK government policy-making; and that the North Korean leadership’s performance in crisis was neither timely nor adequate.  However, Kim Jong Il did eventually take the plunge and launched substantial structural socio-economic reforms in the late 1990s, using the military as the primary driving force in restructuring and modernizing the North Korean economy on the basis of the market-based approach, re-energizing the North Korean society, and consolidating the ruling elites under the slogans of the army-first policy with the goal of building a “prosperous powerful great nation.” 


Conference participants noted with surprise that, in 2003, socio-economic reforms were not reversed but further advanced despite increasingly hostile international environment, which may be construed either as a sign that they may have become irreversible or that the leadership may not necessarily have complete control over and cannot help but swim along with the new macro-economic processes and micro-economic behavior that it unleashed in July 2002. 


The army-first policy-driven military rule in this context can be both positive and negative.  On the positive side, given the fact that the North Korean military is ubiquitous and plays many multi-dimensional roles (as an important economic actor in agriculture, infrastructure construction, R&D, professional education, arms sales, and hard currency earning; as the major ideological educator, socializer of the youth, and the general backbone of the society; as well as the principal veto power in all policy deliberations, let alone as the military defender of the nation and the principal guarantor of the regime survival), it is very important that the strategic decision to initiate modernization reforms was a military-backed decision.  It was driven by the pure self-preservation instinct, not based on Marxist-Leninist or Juch’s ideology.  But, without the support of the top military leaders, Kim Jong Il alone could not have made a strategic decision to launch economic reforms.  He needed the military support for his reforms, and he got it.  What seems to be important is the fact that the reform-inclined KPA is elevated to be the primary actor whereas the more conservative Workers’ Party of Korea is relegated to be the secondary actor in restructuring the North Korean state and building a “great powerful and prosperous nation.”


The fact that North Korea is run by the military under the army-first policy does not mean that the country is hopeless, as the experience of the ROK led by General Park Chong-hee, who orchestrated the South Korean economic miracle, powerfully testifies.  If economic reforms continue to bear positive results, following the July 2002 liberalization of prices and wages, Kim Jong Il is expected to initiate a gradual privatization of the state property, at which time the KPA may become one of the leading actors in the North Korean privatization process because the KPA generals control so many of the country’s key economic assets.  Bearing in mind Kim Jong Il’s recent fascination with General Park Chong-hee’s military rule, in the future North Korea may well develop a corporate state capitalist economy under the authoritarian military leadership when the KPA generals decide to change their military uniforms for key civilian management positions in major industrial combines and trading houses in the same way as their South Korean rivals did back in the 1960s.


On the negative side, due to the over-expansion of military roles, the over-politicization of the KPA, and the “military sprawl” in the North Korean society, the KPA’s primary role, i.e. the military defense of North Korea, tends to be downgraded and downplayed.  Despite the KPA’s continuous claim on almost half of the DPRK’s government budget, its resources are still limited and unduly stretched out.  As a result, the KPA’s military readiness suffers and actual military capabilities continue to deteriorate despite the army-first policy.  Moreover, the principal reason why some foreign governments do not believe in the economic reforms in North Korea is precisely the army-first policy, the dominant role that the KPA still plays in the North Korean decision-making process, and the belief that the army-first policy precludes any constructive resolution in the nuclear negotiations. 


Conference participants observed that the ROK security perceptions were in a flux.  The North Korean conventional military threat is seen as diminishing.  The significance of the North Korean asymmetric warfare threat, including the WMD threat, is downplayed.  Seoul regards Pyongyang as a “partner,” not as “evil,” and views inter-Korean reconciliation and reunification, not the regime change in Pyongyang, as the only viable long-term solution to the North Korean security threat and nuclear crisis. Moreover, the ROK public is increasingly worried about the possibility of the U.S. unilateral use of force against North Korea.  Generational shift in the ROK and President Roh Moo-hyun’s foreign policy opened a wide perception gap and policy divergence between Seoul and Washington, especially on the North Korean issues.  A groundswell of anti-American sentiment in South Korea that dominated the presidential and mayoral elections in December 2002, is responsible for the victory of the “pro-independence faction” in a major government reshuffle in January 2004, and is likely to determine the character of the next National Assembly in parliamentary elections in April 2004, reinforces the impetus for more “independent” foreign policy and “self-reliant” national defense and creates uncertainties for the future of the U.S.-ROK alliance. 


Conference participants expressed widely divergent opinions concerning the challenges facing the U.S.-ROK alliance and its future prospects.  Some optimists argued that the state of the alliance understood in broad terms, including the military security relationship, political and cultural affinities, economic bonds, and personal ties, was good, and that the issues and concerns arising in the day-to-day alliance management reflected its maturation, vitality, and resilience.  Obviously, both U.S. and ROK sentiments toward the alliance are complex and range from strong support to indifference – it is only natural in a democratic society.  They underscored that it was incumbent on the national leadership in both countries to strengthen mutual understanding and trust and lead the alliance restructuring to adept the military alliance to the evolving international threat environment, by making it a comprehensive security alliance and shifting its primary strategic mission from the peninsular defense to the maintenance of regional stability. 


Some pessimists contended that we were looking at the sunset of the U.S.-ROK military alliance.  On the one hand, the anti-American sentiment in the South reached a critical mass (it is not “a radical few” or a “passing phenomenon”), and, if left unabated, it would destroy the alliance.  Public support for the U.S. Forces, Korea (USFK) is crumbling both in the ROK and the U.S., where its organizational structures are increasingly regarded as relics of the Cold War.  Americans are irritated that Korean conservatives aren’t willing to stand up to the defense of the U.S.-ROK military alliance, whereas many Koreans are wrongly convinced that the alliance arrangements, including the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and Operational Control (OPCON), are unfair to the Korean side, that the U.S. is oblivious to the wishes of the Korean people, and that the USFK allegedly hinders Korean unification.  They believe that the alliance is “in crisis,” that one side recognizes it whereas the other does not (which one - depends on the nationality of the speaker).  In their opinion, the “regional alliance” will never happen: when the North Korean military threat finally disappears, the U.S.-ROK alliance may fade away, too.  That is why the ROK government is “in a rush” to develop a self-reliant national security doctrine and self-reliant defense capabilities. 


On the other hand, the sea change has been missed, and the U.S.-ROK military alliance is regarded as being increasing irrelevant and burdensome to the current U.S. military needs, especially when it ties up in Korea the 37,000 U.S. combat-ready troops badly needed in other places of the world where the U.S. military conducts the global war against terrorism.  The U.S. national security policy is arguably frustrated by the alliance rigidities, sensitivities, and complications, which does not bode well for its long-term survivability.  The burden is on the Koreans now to determine whether they want the alliance and in what shape and start selling their future vision really hard in Washington before it is too late.  Alliance and defense self-reliance were said to be mutually exclusive and incompatible. 


The middle-of-the-road views cautioned against extreme conclusions.  While recognizing that the U.S.-ROK relationship was facing a critical moment, they urged against crisis talk and stressed that anti-American sentiment was probably born under past authoritarian regimes and was an inevitable result of the growing pains and democratization of the South Korean society, that it ebbed and flowed, and that mature political leadership could address the alliance management issues without causing any needless ruptures in the overall bilateral relationship.  They asserted that the emerging South Korean movement toward a more self-reliant system in national defense should be seen as part of the national reconciliation process with the North.  It is designed to enhance the ROK’s national security, and, therefore, it is supplementary to the U.S.-ROK alliance, and is not a strategic alternative to it.


Despite recent growth in the ROK’s military capabilities, the ROK armed forces still need the U.S. air and naval power, as well as strategic reconnaissance assets to repel a possible North Korean invasion.  Moreover, the ROK needs the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella in order to deal with the rise of China and Japan’s evolution toward a “normal state.” In their view, the transfer of responsibility over the Joint Security Area to the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA), the Yongsan garrison relocation out of the capital area, the OPCON reform, and the USFK consolidation in a sea and air hubs in Pyongtaek and Osan should adequately satisfy the defense needs and assuage public fears of both allies.  They believe that the U.S.-Japan security relationship may serve as a model for the future evolution of the U.S.-ROK military alliance.


Conference participants shared the view that North Korea should be engaged in nuclear talks rather than internationally isolated and subdued through various operations involving the use of force.  Some speakers from the region even suggested that living with a limited nuclear power in the DPRK for the time being, albeit undesirable in principle would be preferable to a regional war or a half-baked unverifiable nuclear agreement.  Everyone agreed that only regime transformation in Pyongyang could guarantee an irreversible, verifiable, and unconditional dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear program in the long run, because of Kim Jong Il’s seeming irredentist nuclear ambitions.  


In the meantime, there was a conference consensus that as one of the first necessary steps, a nuclear freeze was needed as a temporary “place-holder” for either a step-by-step nuclear crisis resolution or a “bigger and bolder” new deal between the DPRK and the international community that could resolve most of the pending security concerns of the parties involved in the six-party talks in the so-called “big bang approach.”  All participants lauded the establishment of the Beijing process as a landmark development in building a multilateral regional security architecture in Northeast Asia, with some even suggesting that the six-party talks are too valuable to abandon, whatever the DPRK does, and therefore they should be extended to include other security concerns of regional powers, not just the North Korean nuclear issue.