Distinguished historian of Korea James Palais tells UCLA audience that Washington misreads North Korea's intentions and endangers Koreans in South as well as North.
James B. Palais, emeritus professor of History at the University of Wasington, made an unsparing critique of the Bush administration's North Korea policy in an April 18 address at UCLA sponsored by the Center for Korean Studies. Failure to grasp the nationalist and isolationist roots of the North Korean regime, he said, has led the Bush administration to threaten that country out of fears of an attack that are extremely improbable.
George Bush, he pointed out, was on record as opposing the 1994 Agreed Framework between the Clinton administration and North Korea even before his election as president. It is true that the North Koreans have moved to develop nuclear weapons, he added, but there are good reasons to believe that from their standpoint this is a strictly defensive move. If that is true, President Bush's refusal to talk to the Kim Jong Il government makes the situation worse than it needs to be.
"Bush has said, I'm not going to have any more dealings with you until you people give up your nuclear weapons project. The North Koreans responded by saying, well, we are willing to negotiate directly with you, the United States, but nobody else. As a matter of fact, if you agree to a nonaggression pact, that is to say, no first use by the United States of atomic weapons against us Koreans, we are willing to negotiate this problem with you."
President Bush's response has been to brand the North Korean request as "blackmail." "In addition to that he villified the North Korean leader by saying he hated him, he had no use for him, calling North Korea the axis of evil, and saying that Kim Jong Il is an evil person because he was starving his people to death. These were all public statements that are in the public record."
Palais added that "this policy was extremely dangerous and ill-advised, to say the least." The problem, he said, is that "the Bush administration has grossly misunderstood what motivates the North Koreans.... This is a misunderstanding about the nature of North Korea, which I think antedates current policy concerns."
The Bush Administration Policy "Tends ... to Create a Second Korean War"
The United States had agreed to concessions in 1994 to get North Korea to halt its nuclear operations at Yongbyon. "An agreement was made to provide certain things that cost a certain amount of money. Of course, the United States unilaterally shifted the major cost, for the two promised light water reactors, to Japan and South Korea. But the Clinton administration did decide to give them what they needed in exchange for what the United States wanted them to do. The North Korean economy is in horrible shape. They have a fuel shortage, an energy shortage, they don't make anything anyone wants to buy except for raw materials."
North Korea was building the Yongbyon reactor to provide a much needed source of electricity. Inasmuch as it was the United States that wanted them to stop because of possible use of byproducts of this reactor for weapons development, the Clinton government agreed to provide a substitute that could not produce weapons grade plutonium. "The light water reactors were to supply them with the energy that they are so short of. This is what Bush has refused to do. He says, I'm not going to dicker with you, and if the North Koreans do not disarm themselves right away then there is going to be big trouble. Sanctions will be imposed. If the North Koreans don't concede, a state of war will take place, violence will take place."
James Palais warned that if the United States were to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea, the ensuing battle would inevitably spill over into the South, and would probably devastate the South Korean capital at Seoul, "which houses about half of the South Korean population. The United States has been an ally of South Korea since 1945. And what the United States has been supposedly doing ever since that time is to protect South Korea from aggression. Now what I think the Bush administration's policy tends to do is create the second Korean war."
How Real Is the North Korean Threat?
Palais asked whether North Korea really poses a major threat to the United States. "First of all, there is the claim that they may have one or two nuclear weapons. Nobody has proven that they have any weapons. All we know is that they have scraped up enough plutonium that if they wanted to they could have made one or two nuclear weapons.
"So far as we know there have been no nuclear weapons tests in North Korea. Anybody who builds a nuclear weapon has to test it to see if it will work. If they do test them, they will be down to one weapon." There is enough spent fuel from the Yongbyon reactor to build some six additional nuclear bombs in the next six months. "Now suppose they do make six or even twelve nuclear weapons," Palais said. "Are they going to start launching their dozen weapons at the United States? If they do that, there will be instant destruction. The United States has missiles, aircraft carriers, we would bomb North Korea and leave nothing but dust." He said that both the North Koreans and the American government understand these realitites.
Why Not a Quid Pro Quo? Many Others Received Them
"So what are we reduced to? That the North Koreans are going to start peddling this stuff to Al Qaeda, if they can find them, or to the Taliban hiding in Pakistan? Is it that this can't be negotiated? Well, it could be negotiated, but not under Bush. He says, 'I'm not negotiating, I'm not giving any quid pro quo.' This reminds me of what was taking place in the recent Iraqi war, when Bush sent his representative to Turkey" and offered the Turkish government $15 billion to permit U.S. troops to cross Turkey and open a northern front in the war against Iraq. "Does it take $15 billion for a quid pro quo with North Korea? The two light water reactors only cost $4 or $5 billion." And South Korea and Japan are pledged to pay for that.
"The way to solve that problem," James Palais insisted, "is to work out a quid pro quo arrangement that may cost a few dollars. We've got enough money to buy off the whole Middle East. Billions of dollars go to Israel. Billions more go to Egypt. That seems to be okay, but for some reason Bush doesn't want to get tarrred with the brush of compromising with North Korea."
Why North Korea Wants Direct Negotiations with the United States
An important opportunity to defuse the tensions on the Korean peninsula is being lost because of the disagreement over unilateral versus multilateral talks. "There is some justification in my mind," James Palais said, "for North Korea wanting to negotiate directly with the United States. The real reason the North Koreans want one-on-one talks is that the only country that threatens North Korea's existence is the United States. The United States is a superpower armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and all other kinds of nonnuclear technologies that were just displayed in the Iraqi war, and as far as they are concerned they are in a crisis of existence."
Why Not Continue with Containment?
The Bush administration rejects the cold war policy of containment for North Korea today. "I would say that containment does work," Palais disagreed. "It has been working ever since the end of the Korean War and it will continue to work. It will continue to work even if the North Koreans continue their nuclear program. Let us say they have two weapons. Suppose they had twelve weapons. What are the North Koreans going to do with them? Are they going to launch these weapons against the United States and get obliterated? No, because the United States has overwhelming force and can annihilate North Korea overnight. That is the essence of containment."
Has the Hermit Kingdom become Expansionist?
During the cold war, James Palais recalled, the Soviet Union was branded and expansionist empire, and this tendency was traced far back in Russian history. "The Russians were interested in empire. They were an expansionist country, all the way through their history. And in the contemporary communist period the same thing. They were seeking world domination through communism but they came from a long history of this. They control a huge territory."
The situation in Korea was quite the opposite. "You have to go back to the Shilla dynasty to find any expansion taking place. And it came to an end in 668, with most of the expansion ending prior to 600. Since that time Korea has been on the defensive the whole time. And what the situation is now, according to Bush, is that they have suddenly transformed themselves into an offensive power and are threatening to develop an empire, something like the Russian empire? I don't see any evidence of this."
He asked rhetorically if anyone believed that North Korea was try to conquer Japan or the United States. "While the North Koreans at first appeared as the most ruthless and offensive-minded state in northeast Asia, particularly during the Korean War, have been transformed since into what looks like a very traditional type of hermit kingdom, interested primarily in self-defense. Their policy is to protect themselves against potential predators from the outside world. And that's the main reason they want to negotiate directly with the United States. The United States is the big predator."
He noted that the last two South Korean presidents have followed a policy of peaceful negotiation with the North Korean regime.
A History of Merited Distrust of the Outside World
Palais suggested that North Korea's inward looking and defensive stance is grounded in a long history of subjugation by their larger neighbors. "For hundreds of years they were enrolled as a tributary to various states in China. They escaped being absorbed into a Chinese empire by assuming an inferior position in all kinds of ways, including language and relationships. North Korea is quite different from this, but they share the same attitude toward the outside world. They want to preserve themselves and not be destroyed. It is not common to see the North Koreans as a fundamentally conservative state which is vying for self-preservation and not aggression against anybody else, but I think that's what the situation is."
North Korean Communists: Unmitigated Evil or Champions of Nationalist Virtue?
Palais sought to offer a different context from George Bush's in which to judge the morality of North Korea's communist leaders. "They've got their own sense of morality," he suggested. "It has absolutely nothing to do with liberal democracy and free market capitalism. The Bush administration seems to think that the best thing in the world is both of those things and if you do not support them, there is something evil and nefarious about you. The North Koreans have been driven by certain ideas and certain objectives. One, of course, is nationalism. The other one is what you might call an anticapitalism mentality based on the fact that they regard capitalism as contrary to what you might call the most harmonious of worlds. The world with the most justice in it."
The communist movement in Korea, he said, is closely related to the slightly earlier nationalist movement. Both generally rejected the traditional society, because of its high levels of inequality and because the traditional hierarchies proved incapable of defending national sovereignty from foreign predation.
"The early nationalists and later the communists were devoted to overcoming the evils of traditional society, which they labeled as feudal, not that I regard them as feudal, but the Marxists regard them as feudal." Traditional Korean society was "a hierarchic society based on inherited status. In addition to that you also had the question of the distribution of wealth. Korea was basically an agrarian society in which most of the wealth was locked up in the hands of the major landlords, who happened to be also the people of high status, called the Yangban. These people rented their land out to commoner peasants or their slaves. 30% of the population were slaves all the way to practically the end of the eighteenth century."
The new communist government in North Korea carried out a land reform in 1946 that had long been a goal of nationalist critics of the old regime. "They thought that was the most morally just thing they could do in society. As far as they were concerned, free market capitalism and freedom of speech had absolutely nothing to do with what their objectives were."
National Liberation from Foreign Controls
The other central belief of the North Korean communists has been nationalism. "When they looked back on their past history, the tributary system as a blot on Korean history, that for hundreds of years the Koreans had to assume an inferior status to all foreign powers. They had to knock their heads on the ground nine times whenever they visited the Chinese emperor. Whenever an envoy came from China, the king had to show respect to this lowly official from China. All the language they had to use to the Chinese was that of inferiors. They had to send tribute every year."
Both communists and nationalists regarded this long history of subservience as proof of the cowardly nature of the old elites. "When a foreign invader showed up, instead of fighting them to the death, more often than not they would submit to a new ruler and assume an inferior subordinate status to those people. The lesson that the nationalists of the late nineteenth and twentieth century learned was that the problem with Korea was this inferior status. Korea has to stand tall, it had to be independent, it cannot let foreign powers dictate to it. You cannot assume an inferior status if you are going to be at true patriot. This is what motivated the nationalists, and the Koreans came to communism because they were looking for the liberation of their country. They came to it in 1918, 1919, and 1920, right in the middle of the colonial period. They became communists primarily becaue they wanted to liberate their nation from Japanese colonial rule."
South Korean Leaders Seen as Collaborators by the North
During World War II, much of the core group of North Korean communists had gone to Manchuria, where they engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese, under the leadership of Kim Il Sung. "When the war was over in 1945 and they came back, lo and behold, what happened? The United States had arranged to divide their country in half. They could find a haven in North Korea where they had Russian backing, but in South Korea you had a government under Syngman Rhee that was staffed by all kinds of collaborators that had worked with the Japanese for many years. People who had been in the Japanese army, people who had been landlords, people who had been businessmen, people who had flourished under Japan during the whole period. And as far as the communists were concerned, this was anathema. This Syngman Rhee government was nothing but puppets of the United States, because who were they working with? They were working with people who betrayed the Korean national interests during the whole colonial period. And they still have that same attitude all the way to today. So if they negotiate with the South Koreans they still have in the back of their minds that these are people dominated by a foreign power."
The United States: Superpower or Colonial Power?
The North Koreans have been difficult for the United States to deal with," Palais said, because "they are insulted by someone like Bush who calls them the axis of evil and refuses to show them respect. They want to be treated on an equal basis as a sovereign state and the United States has not wanted to do this, just like the imperialist powers of previous times. TheAmericans are insensitive to the sensitivities of the North Koreans, and that becomes a major problem."
It is understandable, he added, that the North Koreans would be secretive and not want to divulge information to the United States that concerned their national security. "They want to hold something back so they have something to rely on to protect them from obliteration. I would say this nationalist desire to create a state that is fully independent and will not be subservient to any other country no matter how powerful it is, explains why they appear to be so intransigent. This is not based on an inherent propensity for evil but on a strong sense of national identity and patriotism. If you understand it and take it into account you will be able to deal with it in a more humane way I would say."
A Country Where Everybody Thinks Alike
On the question of morality, he concluded, "they just simply do not believe in a liberal democracy. What they put forward is to have a unified country where everybody thinks alike. This is the only way you can have a strong country that can stand up to the pressures and tricks of the outside world, and of course that is why there is no free speech. Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il have controlled the word, communications. They want to create a country in which everybody thinks alike, they are all patriotic, they refuse to kowtow to the foreign powers and what have you, and of course they are not interested in open discussion. Unfortunately we are dealing with a situation in which, if you simply take the attitude that North Korea is undemocratic and doesn't have the freedoms that exist under capitalism it deserves to rubbed out, all that does is lead to nothing but difficulty and can cause tremendous suffering if things take their course, as I hope they don't.
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James Palais was born and raised in Brookline, Mass. He holds a B.A. in American history from Harvard, an MA in Japanese studies from Yale, and a doctorate in History focusing on Korea from Harvard. He is the author of Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions: Yu Hyongwon and the Late Choson Dynasty (University of Washington Press, 1996), which was awarded the John Whitney Hall Book Prize for 1998. He is editor of the Columbia Guide to Korean History (Columbia University Press, forthcoming).