Regional Stability

On Korean Peninsula, Focus Should Be on Unification Not Provocation: Q&A with Sue Terry

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Image: Staff Sgt. Bryanna Poulin/Wikimedia

This interview was originally published by IPI Global Observatory on 21 July 2014.

Last week, the North Korean regime resumed its policy of provocation and destabilization on the Korean Peninsula by firing two ballistic missiles into the eastern sea and over 100 rockets and artillery shells off its east coast; the missiles landed within a few hundred yards of the South Korean border.

I spoke about these developments and their implications for security on the Korean Peninsula with Sue Terry, currently a research scholar at Columbia University’s Weatherhead Institute and formerly a Central Intelligence Agency officer and director of Korea, Japan, and Oceanic Affairs at the National Security Council. In this interview, Ms. Terry discusses her recent article, where she argues that North and South Korea, as well as the regional powers, should focus on unifying the two countries.

What follows is an edited version of our conversation, which took place last week.

On July 14, North Korea fired missiles close to the South Korean border. What is happening on the Korean Peninsula right now?

It’s entirely predictable what North Korea is doing—it’s not a surprise at all. Basically, they have to do something to protest the upcoming US-RoK [Republic of Korea] joint military exercises. And protest last week, when [Chinese President] Xi Jinping visited South Korea before North Korea—the first time a Chinese leader decided to do so.

In fact, they have done all their test preparations for their fourth nuclear test, so the firing of these short-range missiles is not really that significant, and it’s not as provocative as we might expect. They are trying to show their sense of  displeasure toward Washington and China, without really provoking either.

How do you think these launches or an eventual fourth nuclear test will affect the situation on the peninsula?

Unfortunately, it is just getting worse and worse. This problem has been going on for the last two decades. This has been a long cycle of North Korea acting provocatively and the international community showing some sense of outrage. Then North Korea always comes back with some more. And then they turn to some peace offensive to get the regional powers to talk, through the six-party talks, trying to get some sort of concession either from Washington or Seoul.

Probably, the fourth nuclear test is coming, and then what we’re going to do is probably more of the same, which is trying to get the UN to come up with some sort of resolution, and then trying to tighten up sanctions.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of options when it comes to North Korea. We’re stuck in this cycle of North Korean provocation. I think it was Viktor Chan of North Korea Watch who said, “It’s a land of lousy options. When it comes to North Korea, there is no good option.”

Recently, you argued in a paper that both the North and the South, as well as the regional powers, should focus on unifying the two countries. How likely do you think this is, and what do you see as the challenges and prospects of unification?

While I argued for the two countries to unify, there’s not much that Washington can do to affect that. What I do argue is that we have to stop propping up the regime, and, of course, China will have to play a huge role in that. For a long time, the US, Japan, China, and South Korea, too, were so worried about what would happen if the North Korean regime collapsed, what would happen to internal instability. Everybody was so focused on the high costs of unification that everyone tried to prop up the regime.

North Korea has always acted provocatively in its entire history with South Korea—there were numerous presidential assassination attempts; there was a bombing of a Korean airliner in 1987 that killed 115 people on board; there was a Burma bombing that killed about half of the South Korean cabinet. Provocations have always been there, but South Korea has never really reacted, and that’s not because they are worried about ultimately losing a war—they know that if there is a conflict, South Korea will ultimately prevail. They are worried about the cost of unification and instability.

So what I argue is that this is a short-sighted view. There are a lot of benefits that could come with unification, which we have not focused on. We have been overly focused on all the challenges, but not enough on the opportunities. And we’ve been fearing unification rather than welcoming it.

You mentioned that the Chinese president opted to visit South Korea before North Korea. Can you tell us whether you think this is a significant change in Chinese policy, or is it just another symbolic gesture that won’t have tangible consequences?

What you are asking is the big question for all Korea and China watchers right now: Has China’s North Korean policy changed? I believe China’s strategy, its main interests and goals vis-à-vis North Korea, have not changed. But China’s tactics have changed: President Xi Jinping visited South Korea for the first time before visiting North Korea, and Xi Jinping and the Chinese are more vocal about criticizing North Korea—I think he even once criticized Kim Jong-un by name. If you look at China’s bilateral trade with North Korea over the past few years, it consistently increased each year, even in the aftermath of the third nuclear test last year and even in the aftermath of the execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle [believed to have been China’s go-to man in North Korea], which really got the Chinese rather upset.

China’s bilateral trade with North Korea is still increasing. I think in 2013, trade with North Korea was at $6.5 billion, which was more than the year before. So my point is that they are tactically doing things to prevent North Korea from conducting a fourth nuclear test and trying to get North Korea back to the six-party talks, but I don’t think China’s fundamental interests have changed yet.

The other key player in the region is Japan. What can you tell us about their stance currently?

Frankly speaking, Japan’s current stance is frustrating to me because they are very much focused on the abduction issue for domestic reasons, and right now I think they have agreed with North Korea to temporarily lift their unilateral sanctions in return for Pyongyang agreeing to look into the abduction issue, as if the NK regime does not know exactly what the situation is with all the abductees.

So I think Japan is very much focused now on solving the domestic issue. And North Korea is very good at driving a wedge between countries. Right now, seeing that China and South Korea are acting fairly close with the summit [Jinping’s visit to Seoul], North Korea is reaching out to Japan to put in that wedge between Seoul and Japan, and China and Japan. I think that’s working.

You’ve traveled to South Korea extensively. What is the general mood of the South Korean people when it comes to both North Korea and the unification issue?

Every time North Korea acts provocatively, it is in the West that we think it is very scary, that Kim Jong-un is acting very provocatively. Seoul is unfazed. They’ve basically been living with this North Korean problem since the division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945 and after the Korean War. When you’re in Seoul, you don’t see this heightened tension. The public goes on with their day as not much has changed. For example, after the third nuclear test last year, there was a huge media reaction in the United States, but in South Korea, people were just going along, because they live with this threat all the time. Every time there’s a missile threat, the public just sees it as a missile test.

In terms of unification, there’s a real divide between the generations. The older generation, the ones that have family members still in North Korea that lived through the Korean War, they still long for unification. But increasingly, the younger generations don’t have that background, they don’t have that history, they don’t have their family members living in North Korea, and so the younger generation feels less and less interested in unification.

What do you think would bring the South Korean people, especially the younger generation, which are the future of South Korea, on board with unification?

I think not enough research has been done to show that there are potentially enormously positive implications to unification that would lead to a stronger Korea. Look at unified Germany today—it’s the strongest country in Europe. In 30-40 years, the Korean Peninsula could be the Germany of Asia. I think what really needs to be done is education, and making the public become aware of all the benefits of unification, not only the costs.

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Ramy Srour is Assistant Web Editor at the International Peace Institute. He tweets at@Ra_Srour.

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