According to the Radio New Zealand website Dr Tim Beal, a retired lecturer in Asian studies at Victoria University, the US may be using its current military exercises in South Korea to deliberately thwart that country’s efforts to strengthen political and economic ties with North Korea. Beal is the author of the 2005 North Korea: the Struggle Against American Power. The book traces the warming of US-North Korean relations that occurred under Clinton, as well as the turnaround that occurred when George W Bush declared it an official member of the “Axis of Evil.” Dr Beal is also the vice-president of the New Zealand Democratic Republic of (North) Korea Friendship Society, an organization that arranges exchange visits between North Korean and New Zealand teachers and other professionals.
Beal reminds us that Park Geun-hye, recently elected as South Korea’s first female president, ran on a platform of strengthening her country’s engagement with North Korea. She is the first president to do so since President Kim Dae Jung (1998-2003), author of the Sunshine Policy that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.
Bush’s Fear of Korean Unification
We get a very different picture of North Korea here in the South Pacific than Americans do. Normally the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize gets lavish coverage in the corporate media. Not so with the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize winner — nor the Sunshine Policy he won it for.
The goal of the Sunshine Policy was an improved economic union between the two countries (like the European Union) that would allow each of them to retain their political independence. In addition to allowing for easier visitation across the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that divides the Korean peninsula, it also provided for massive humanitarian aid as a prelude to substantial South Korean business investment in the north. The possibility of having access to the North’s young, regimented workforce was extremely attractive to South Korea’s corporations.
Over a period of approximately eight months, economic cooperation between the two countries progressed to the point that they jointly build a railroad crossing the DMZ and established the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region in North Korea, enabling a million South Koreans to visit and reconcile with family members they hadn’t seen since the end of the war. The visits ended in 2008 following a shooting incident (in which a South Korean tourist was shot) and Lee Myung-bak’s election to South Korean presidency. Lee myung-bak supported George W Bush’s hawkish hard line policy towards North Korea.
In January 2002 Bush effectively ended South Korea’s Sunshine Policy with a State of the Union address in which he virtually declared North Korea an enemy state by including them in his so-called “Axis of Evil.” At the time a number of analysts believed his administration worried about the economic powerhouse, second only to China, a unified Korea represented.
North Korea’s (understandable) response was to strengthen its nuclear capability, as a deterrent to what they perceived as a likely US invasion (there are already 37,000 US troops stationed in South Korea). A year later, South Korean officials would openly accuse the US deliberately sabotaging the Sunshine Policy, by demanding the US military be given the names of all civilians who crossed the DMZ. North Korea, long opposed to the presence of any US troops in the DMZ, refused to accept this requirement. Thanks to intervention from South Korean diplomats, it was eventually relaxed, and US troops withdrew to Camp Bonifas, just south of the DMZ. At present the troops in the DMZ are mainly Swiss and Swedish serving under UN auspices.
Obama’s Korean Policy
With Park Geun-hye’s recent election as president, there is clearly strong support in South Korea for renewed rapprochement with the North. As well as hope that his second term (when he no longer faces re-election), would see Obama leaning more towards dialogue, like Clinton, than the hawkish rhetoric of his immediate predecessor. Thus far that hope seems to be misplaced.