[Interview] U.S.-Korea relations in the Obama era

Posted on : 2008-11-07 13:43 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Normalization of relations ‘could bring huge changes to the topography of foreign relations in Northeast Asia’

With the Obama era, major changes in the topography are foreseen not only for the United States but for the rest of the world, and the Korean Peninsula in particular. Will friendly relations between North Korea and the United States become a reality? What kind of presence will South Korea be on the international stage? Can a multipolar system be realized? Jungsoo Jang, The Hankyoreh’s executive editor, sat down with Moon Chung-in, professor of comparative politics and international relations at Yonsei University, to delve deeply into the global changes to come from the Obama era.

Jungsoo Jang: The new diplomacy pursued by Obama will inevitably bring considerable geopolitical changes to Northeast Asia.

Moon Chung-in: If you listen to Obama’s people, it seems that there will be particularly large changes in relations between the United States and North Korea. As they enter the third stage of the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program, there is plenty of room for the possibility of normalization of relations between Washington and Pyongyang as a verification system is created and verifiable dismantlement takes place. So the threatening elements in North Korea will be reduced or disappear, and U.S. relations with China will improve so that all issues will proceed with cooperation between the United States and China, which will reduce the threat of China and take away the justifiability of the missile defense system pursued by the United States and Japan. Currently, the logic of responding to the threats of North Korea and China by strengthening the South Korea-U.S. alliance, as seen in the Lee Myung-bak administration, is losing strength. It could bring huge changes to the topography of foreign relations in Northeast Asia. If what Obama has been talking about so far is realized, Northeast Asia will become a much better region to live in, without the threat of war.

Jang: If you remove the North Korean nuclear issue, the nations participating in the six-party talks have no common interests. In a situation where a common denominator is difficult to locate, what kind of strategic card can South Korea bring to a transformed national security situation?

Moon: The concern is what kind of effect it will have on South Korea when the Obama administration takes office. The flow of the alliance will be maintained, but there will be changes to the specific content. There is a strong possibility that the number of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, currently 28,500, will be scaled down, and within that situation, it is very likely that demands for an increase in South Korea’s share of defense expenses will gain force. There is also a possibility of requests for the deployment of soldiers or noncombat support with President-elect Obama betting everything on Afghanistan. If an international conflict arises, demands for peacekeeping troops will increase for South Korea as well. The position on the North Korean nuclear issue is that friendly relations between Washington and Pyongyang are possible if North Korea adopts a forward-looking stance in the third stage of verifiable dismantlement. From what I’ve heard, the United States is even examining sites for an embassy in Pyongyang. In the past, friendly relations were viewed as the final outcome of nuclear dismantlement, but there is a fairly strong possibility that the Obama administration will carry out the two things simultaneously. In my opinion, if a basic agreement is signed for the normalization of North Korea-U.S. relations, a peace agreement could also be included in it. An even more effective agreement than the peace agreement that North Korea is talking about can be formed if they include mutual agreements on peace between the two nations within this basic agreement. In such a situation, South Korea could be left out in the cold if we say that we won’t talk with North Korea.

Jang: If that happens, there is a possibility that South Korea and Japan could actually become bigger headaches for the United States than North Korea. How do you think the United States will respond?

Moon: The United States follows its national interests. Of course it will come and try to persuade the two nations. But Japan doesn’t listen because of North Korea and China, and South Korea doesn’t listen because of North Korea. So there’s going to be friction. Whether that will help national interests is a concern, but since the Lee Myung-bak administration said that it would maintain good relations with the United States whoever the U.S. president turned out to be, we’ll have to hang our hopes on that.

Jang: It seems that the Lee Myung-bak administration might have to change its codes. But what kind of blueprint would the Obama camp have for the North Korean nuclear issue?

Moon: There is no difference between the U.S. Republican and Democratic Parties in terms of verifiable dismantlement. But there is a difference in the method of giving incentives. In the past, they said that normalization of relations would not take place if dismantlement were not completed, but Obama is saying that dismantlement and normalization of relations can be pursued together. President-elect Obama said that he was willing to meet with Kim Jong-il if necessary to accomplish that. They may intervene partially in internal affairs with human rights issues, but that will fall a bit on the list of priorities. They say that they will do the basics with the nuclear issue.

Jang: How should North Korean human rights issues be resolved?

Moon: In the beginning of his term, Bush pursued nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction and human rights all together, but ultimately he placed priority on nuclear weapons. Obama is the same way. He won’t apply any kind of doctrine of exporting democracy in a way that requires force like Bush. I imagine that Obama [[[[will be of the position that]]]] North Korea [[[will change over]]] time. Human rights will become an issue internally as well if North Korea reforms, opens up and becomes a normal state. If they are ordered to resolve human rights issues immediately as a condition of friendly relations, would that be possible? Of course, North Korea, too, needs to be proactive. There are said to be concentration camps for political crimes in North Korea, so they should let people come and have a look, they should allow people to come to North Korea and check out the truth of claims by North Korean defectors, and they need to take a proactive stance on the issue of abductees to North Korea as well. If some major negotiation is realized between North Korea and the United States and the sovereignty of North Korea is recognized, I imagine that Pyongyang will concede a considerable amount as long as the United States does not show intentions and behavior directed at a change in the North Korean system. If you think that there’s an external force that might overthrow your system at any time, how is there any room to think about human rights issues?

Jang: How do you view the possibility of a summit between President-elect Obama and Kim Jong-il at the level of a negotiations package?

Moon: That’s something Obama himself has talked about maybe four times. What Frank Jannuzi said when he met with major figures in South Korea was that if there were a possibility of resolving things through a summit they would do it. If you look at the collection of quotes by Obama, there’s an interesting part. He asks why North Korea has nuclear weapons, and says several times that the Bush administration brought about that result because it rejected dialogue, that dialogue can be accomplished with Castro and with Iran, and that the categorical abandonment of dialogue does not really promote national interests.

Jang: What kind of thoughts do you think North Korea has about the Obama administration?

Moon: North Korea has very high expectations right now. That’s why Ri Gun, director general of American Affairs in North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, is in New York right now. North Korea has a system of single leadership, and they think any amount of dialogue is possible if their leader is recognized. Obama sent just that message. The possibility that a large-scale, nonpartisan U.S. delegation will go to North Korea under an agreement with Obama’s transition team cannot be excluded. A nonpartisan group with Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Greg Craig will go and hear North Korea’s opinions and inform President-elect Obama of them.

Jang: It is likely relations between North Korea and the United States are going to improve rapidly under the Obama administration. How should the Lee administration respond?

Moon: The Lee administration needs to move quickly to improve inter-Korean relations. Influence with North Korea is a card Seoul can use to play with the United States. The ability to influence Pyongyang is not something you get from confrontation -- it becomes a playable card when (the Americans) feel North Korea is hard to deal with unless they go through Seoul.

Then there’s the issue of the Lee administration’s opinion of what the Obama administration will look like. Doubts that it will be radically different and that policies probably won’t change that much -- this kind of simplistic thinking could significantly complicate Lee’s policy towards the United States and South Korea-U.S. relations. It needs to come up with plans and responses (for the changes that are coming) with the Obama administration. There is a lot of talk about whether there exist personal connections between the Lee and Obama administrations, but that’s no matter. It’s a question of whether there is confidence in a leader or not, and interests have to exist for there to be confidence. The government needs to find where the interests of the Lee and Obama administrations converge, figure out what needs to be reconciled, do the reconciling and go forward -- it would be of no help to the Korean Peninsula and the Northeast Asian region as a whole for the two administrations to be out of step like they were during the Kim Young-sam administration.

Jang: President Lee makes a stronger U.S.-Korea alliance his top strategic goal. It looks like that will require a change in tone.

Moon: Naturally. Changing the tone of the incoming U.S. administration will not be easy for the Lee administration. This was proven during Kim Dae-jung’s presidency. When George W. Bush was sworn in, Kim thought he would be able to persuade Bush in his direction with words alone, and that’s not what happened. This is something that needs to be appreciated.

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]

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