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Asia Experts Debate Road Ahead for U.S. Over Korean Strife

May 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The U.S. announced plans to conduct naval exercises off the Korean peninsula in response to the sinking of a South Korean vessel two months ago. Judy Woodruff gets two views from experts on Asian affairs about the investigation into the sinking of the Cheonan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all this, we get two views. Selig Harrison is the director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy. And Balbina Hwang was a State Department adviser on the Korean nuclear negotiations during the George W. Bush administration. She now teaches at the National Defense University.

Thank you both for being with us.

Selig Harrison, to you first. What do you make of South Korea’s response announced today? Is it the right fit?

SELIG HARRISON, Asia program director, Center for International Policy: No, I don’t think so. I think that the problem is that South Korea abrogated agreements that were made — an agreement that was made between North Korea and South Korea in June 2000, when the former president, Kim Dae-jung, went and had a summit with Kim Jong Il, and they made an agreement that the two countries would coexist and that South Korea’s — what North Korea considered South Korea’s past objective of trying to bring about the collapse and the absorption of North Korea by the South would end with a new period that has been called the sunshine policy of Kim Dae-jung.

Now, what happened was when — when became Lee Myung-Bak became the president, he repudiated this agreement. And when I went to North Korea…

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the current president.

SELIG HARRISON: Yes, the current president, President Lee, came into office and repudiated what had been done by his two predecessors, which had created the peaceful situation, where there was no military tension at all for eight years.

And when I went to North Korea last year, this was the one thing they kept saying. South Korea has gone back to its own tricks of the military dictatorships of the past, where their objective is to bring about the collapse of North Korea and our absorption by the South. So…

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you are saying what the South has done, in effect brought, on what happened?

SELIG HARRISON: Well, I’m not excusing what the North did, which, if they did do this, with 46 casualties, it is a dreadful episode.

What I am saying is, you have to look at this in the context of what has been going on before. It’s not — this is not something that just came out of the blue. This is the climax of two years of a completely different policy on the part of South Korea, which has really spooked North Korea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Balbina Hwang, given all that, was this the right response by the South?

BALBINA HWANG, former State Department official: Oh, this was absolutely the correct response. And, not surprisingly, I disagree quite a bit with Sig’s analysis.

First of all, it is not true that there was absolutely no military provocations in the eight years of the sunshine policy. It’s actually 10 years. In 2002, there was a very distressing naval incident in which I believe 12 South Korean sailors were killed and maimed.

The problem wasn’t that President Lee Myung-Bak has repudiated sunshine policy. In fact, he actually has not done so. When he came into office, he was very careful about not doing so. The reality is, it is correct that the dynamics have been existing for decades.

But the military provocations, it’s very clear who has instigated this. This was a surprise attack. And, frankly, it’s a violation of the armistice agreement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Balbina Hwang, when the South says, we are demanding the North immediately apologize and punish those responsible, is that going to happen?

BALBINA HWANG: Well, it may or may not. What is very interesting about President Lee Myung-Bak’s statement here is that he is actually giving the North Koreans a face-saving way out, actually providing a way to de-escalate.

What he didn’t do was declare that this was the personal responsibility of the dear leader, Kim Jong Il. What he said was, the North Korean regime should find those responsible and punish them. That actually allows the regime then to scapegoat or to actually pinpoint exactly who was responsible and does provide a way out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Provides a way out, safe — safe-face — face-saving response here?

SELIG HARRISON: I think what is called for now is diplomacy involving the United States and the six parties. I don’t think that this can be solved through North-South diplomacy, except in one important area, which is the negotiations on the sea boundary in the Yellow Sea, which is disputed, and which was involved in the episode that you referred to before and is involved in this episode.

And, you know, the U.N. ordained a certain boundary between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea after the Korean Sea, which North Korea never accepted. So, you need diplomacy on the sea boundary between North and South Korea. You need the return to the six-party talks, where this whole issue could be brought up, but where denuclearization should also be brought up. And we…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it — but I was just going to say, in the meantime, what the South is also saying to the North is that we are not going to trade with you anymore.

And, Balbina Hwang, this is a North that now has a population suffering, had had a food shortage. Is this the kind of retaliation that is going to have the desired effect?

BALBINA HWANG: Well, first of all, I don’t necessarily view this as retaliation. Look, the limited trade that South Korea did have with the North was — is not, wasn’t the — wasn’t responsible or providing all of the goods and benefits of a free and market open economy for North Korea.

In fact, it’s…

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you are saying it is not going to make that much difference?

BALBINA HWANG: No, it isn’t. And I don’t think it should be viewed as retaliation.

South Korea does have very few levers. But going back to Sig, I agree with you that this is — in fact, should be handled diplomatically. In fact, we should return to talks between North and South to settle the NLL line, which is the Northern Limit Line, in dispute. By the way, this wasn’t in contention here in this particular incident we are referring to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me just stay with you for a second. My understanding is, you believe that what North Korea has done is a violation of the armistice agreement.

BALBINA HWANG: That’s correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And therefore what, that…

BALBINA HWANG: Well, the armistice, which has been effect since 1953, has very specific protocols and conventions under which it is maintained by an international body.

I completely disagree that we should return to the six-party talks. They were designed specifically for the nuclear issue, which has now been pushed even further back. We should return to a diplomatic effort to revisit the armistice. If North Korea — if this act is a violation of that, then there are measures taken under the U.N. command to address those violations.


SELIG HARRISON: And what we should do is get into negotiations on a peace treaty ending the Korean War. Most Americans don’t realize that we are still in a state of war with North Korea, all these years, 57, is it, since the Korean War.

And now — North Korea is ready now for trilateral negotiations on a peace treaty, which South Korea would be a part, which it wasn’t before. So, that’s where they have been pushing the U.S. We have been balking at this, because — for various reasons. South Korea doesn’t want it. And the American military doesn’t want it.

But, in terms of getting out of this present crisis, we need to concentrate on the need for negotiations on the peace treaty.

SELIG HARRISON: That will then bring into play the question of the armistice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And help us understand the distinction between the peace treaty, the armistice that you’re talking about, and these six-party talks.

BALBINA HWANG: Well, I think Sig has put the cart before the horse.

The armistice is the prelude to a peace treaty. The reason the Korean War was never concluded with a formal peace treaty is precisely this reason. They were never able to get past many of the disagreements that led to years of endless talk and fighting. Therefore, an armistice was put in place to at least stop the conflict.

And it was successful. Look how prosperous South Korea has become.

BALBINA HWANG: So, I agree everybody wants a peace treaty, but we want a peace treaty that all sides can agree to. And North Korea’s terms are not acceptable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right now, we are very far from that.

BALBINA HWANG: That’s correct.

SELIG HARRISON: I think what is missing so far is that this is a very dangerous situation.

Secretary Clinton used the word precarious. It is dangerous, because I don’t know whether North Korea did this. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did it, because of — I think that they…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You don’t know whether North Korea…

SELIG HARRISON: I don’t feel that we have had this evidence laid out, that it hasn’t been — it is, after all, evidence that a South Korean investigation produced.

BALBINA HWANG: It — no, it was actually an international effort.

SELIG HARRISON: They brought in international people, but this wasn’t conducted by an international — and I’m not saying that they didn’t do it.


SELIG HARRISON: What I am trying to say is, this is a very dangerous situation, because, in North Korea, you have a group in the military, a young officers group, which is very militant, very nationalistic. And we have got to be very careful how we handle the situation.

It could escalate very easily. And we have got to get into diplomacy, and not go into naval exercises. We’re going go into joint naval exercises.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is what is going to happen.

SELIG HARRISON: Yes, which is a great — it’s a great mistake.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to give the last word here in terms of what should be done.

BALBINA HWANG: Well, I actually think Lee Myung-Bak’s statement was, frankly, brilliant, because what it does is provides a way for this — entire tensions to be de-escalated.

I think it actually puts a hold on a pattern, unless North Korea decides to cross that line again. And I frankly don’t think that they will. I think North Korea understands what the costs are. I think they miscalculated this time. And his statement allows a way for the North Koreans out of this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we are going to…

SELIG HARRISON: Lee Myung-Bak has to say that he accepts the June 2000 summit declaration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we’re going to leave it there with some pretty clear disagreements between the two of you. Thank you both.


JUDY WOODRUFF: We appreciate it.