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00707012
2012.11
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Time to Ask Essential Questions on North Korea/Stephen Bosworth’s Special Lecture at KF Forum/From the stalled negotiations regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to the striking political, economic, and social transformations underway in South Korea, retired U.S. diplomat Stephen W. Bosworth shared his insights on the Korean Peninsula at the 45th Korea Foundation Forum on September 18, 2012 in Seoul.


Korea, A Complicated Country

Framing South Korea as a “complicated country in a complicated part of the world,” former U.S. Ambassador to Korea Stephen W. Bosworth looked back at his varied diplomatic posts involving the Korean Peninsula during the past two decades. Bosworth served as executive director of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) from 1995 to 1997, after the organization was formed in response to North Korea’s 1994 promise in the “Agreed Framework” to swap its nuclear weapons program for a nuclear energy program. He then served as the United States U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1997 to 2001, while recalling 2001. He recalled his time in Seoul as “extremely satisfying” in contrast with a comparative lack of fulfillment that marked his more recent post, from 2009 to 2011, as the U.S. special representative for envoy on North Korea policy.

Bosworth, who also currently serves as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said he is “struck” by how much has has not changed in North Korea relations with North Korea as well as how much has changed within South Korea during the past 20 years. He said South Korea has become much more “developed, confident and sophisticated” and a “role model for developing democracies,” while its relationship with the United States, with its continued military presence on the peninsula and more widely across East Asia, is “full of historical complexities” and demands constant attention on all sides.

The most difficult problem for faced by South Korea, in Bosworth’s view, is a key domestic social issue: the speed at which society is aging and the accompanying low birthrate (of 1.15 children per women woman, as of 2009 – ― the lowest, in fact, among OECD countries). He did not propose specific solutions, such as a renewed effort to attract immigrants or to encourage families in Korea to have more children, but if left to its own evolution, Bosworth warned, the country’s population decline could lead to a “huge imbalance between public debt and GDP.”

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China’s Lack of Inadequate Influence on North Korea

Stephen Bosworth’s Special Lecture at KF Forum imageAt the same time, Bosworth emphasized that South Korea is shifting into a leadership role in global politics, as the United States, “coming off a bad decade” with two wars and the worst economic downturn in nearly a century, increasingly turns to its allies for shaping policies and dealing with security threats. Consistent with the policy approach to North Korea that he labeled as “strategic patience” during his years as the key U.S. envoy on North Korea policy, Bosworth said that the United States U.S. presence in South Korea and its strategy of deterrence has “shielded” South Korea’s efforts to build up its economy and its democratic political system, but that such deterrence has been complicated by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Bosworth expanded upon this by describing how the United States and South Korea have both sought to supplement deterrence with engagement, first with the Agreed Framework as well as and then the “Sunshine Policy” during the South Korean presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. While Bosworth said he supports a combination of deterrence and engagement, he acknowledged that the attempts at engagement have not produced positive results and the options going forward do not look promising. The Six-Party Talks, aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, have been stalled for close to four years, and, in Bosworth’s view, the longstanding goal of realizing North Korea’s “comprehensive, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” seems unrealistic, in Bosworth’s view. While he credited the Agreed Framework and KEDO for delaying the production of plutonium in North Korea for eight years before the agreement fell apart during the first term of U.S. President George W. Bush, Bosworth cited as a major setback the revelations in 2010 that North Korea had been secretly enriching uranium as an apparent hedge against the failure of the Agreed Framework.

Bosworth cautioned against placing hope in China as a possible constructive influence for North Korea, saying that Beijing seems to worry more about the possible collapse of North Korea than the possible longevity of North Korea as a nuclear state, and that he also doubts Pyongyang would respond positively to overtures from China. Koreans have a long history of resisting Chinese pressure, and in any case, “public welfare is not a major consideration in North Korean foreign policy.”

Peace in Northeast Asia

Stephen Bosworth’s Special Lecture at KF Forum imageOn the other hand, Bosworth also cautioned against those who believe South Korea and the United States simply should wait for the North Korean regime to collapse. As he noted, the “dynastic regime” has made the transition to its third generation and many elites in Pyongyang are invested in the regime going forward. Speculation on an eventual regime collapse in North Korea will not “bail out” Washington and Seoul from its their policy dilemmas, and furthermore, Bosworth said he is not sure about the “appetite for unification” within South Korea, in light of the huge social and economic costs that unification would pose entail.

All these considerations, Bosworth says said, provide a backdrop that the leaders of South Korea and the United States will have to address in early 2013 once the presidential elections in both countries take place later this year. Bosworth said the new administrations should consider these central questions about North Korean policy: “Engagement to what end? Are we seeing just stability or is there a long-term vision?” And he suggested that the incoming administrations might have to lower their ambitions when it comes to influencing North Korea – rather Korea: Rather than pushing for full denuclearization, it might be more practical to focus on more modest steps, such as gaining commitments from North Korea to develop no further nuclear weapons, to reveal how much uranium it has actually enriched (although this is extremely difficult to verify, he noted), and to conduct no further nuclear tests. He also noted, in general terms, that the countries across Northeast Asia need to give North Korea a clearer “vested interest” in the stability of the region and that the leaders of South Korea and the United States need to be more direct and transparent with their respective “democratic populations” about the tradeoffs and limits inherent in dealing with North Korea.

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Hans Schattle
Associate Professor, of Political Science
Yonsei University

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