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Oberdorfer: On Verge of ‘New Day’ on Korean Peninsula

Interviewee: Don Oberdorfer, chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 4, 2007

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Don Oberdorfer, an Asia expert and author of The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History, says that although it is dangerous to be too optimistic, he thinks the latest Six-Party agreement on getting North Korea to divulge all its nuclear secrets, and the latest meeting of the leaders of North and South Korea, indicate that “for once on the Korean peninsula, the stars are in alignment.” He says by the end of the year, “the situation in North Korea is very likely to look much more positive than it has really at any time in recent memory.”   

This morning when I turned on the BBC, the newscast started by saying that the last days of the Cold War may be near. They were talking about the developments regarding North Korea at the Six-Party Talks and signing of the latest agreement between North and South Korea looking toward an eventual peace treaty, signed by the two leaders. Is this a little overblown?

No, I don’t think it’s overblown if you mean in the sense that finally something is happening on the Korean peninsula that is going to greatly reduce and perhaps end the tension across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korea peninsula. As an historian of the Cold War, it was over a long time ago but you have this remaining problem which is inherited from the Cold War and from the division of the Korean peninsula in 1945. This problem—if not ended—is now sufficiently dealt with that it should not be a cause for grave international concern.

As you look at what’s happening, it seems to be that for once on the Korean peninsula, the stars are in alignment, especially the major powers, all of whom would like a reduction of tensions, a greater engagement and understanding across the Korean peninsula. The United States has certainly wanted it, South Korea has for a long time. Japan is hesitant. We may be on the edge of some new day. It’s always dangerous to be too optimistic when you are talking about North Korea. You never know what is going to pop out of the box, but all indications are now that engagement and understanding across the DMZ are moving ahead.

It was not long ago that people were worried about a war with North Korea over its nuclear weapons. What’s happening?  

Starting in the latter part of last year, the United States government under President Bush began to take a very different tack about how to deal with North Korea. For the first six years of the Bush administration, it didn’t want to deal with North Korea at all, calling it part of the “axis of evil.” Then it began to change its views last fall, surprisingly enough around the time that North Koreans detonated its nuclear device. I thought that might end the negotiations but in fact it spurred the negotiations. Since then, the United States and North Korea have been dealing with each other rather intensively and this has created space for South Korea and North Korea to deal with each other more intensively.  The result is what we see today. North Korea—which is in bad shape economically—is receiving assistance not only from South Korea, which wanted to do it but was held back by the United States, but also from Washington. It is moving ahead to the status it promised for a long time that it would do, which is to shut down its nuclear facilities in return for aid, in return for recognition that it is a country that has a place in the world. So these things are moving ahead and there are going to be new moves before the end of the year. On December 31 this year, the situation in North Korea is very likely to look much more positive than it has really at any time in recent memory.   

Do you take these agreements more or less at face value that progress can be made on all these fronts?  

Well, yes. Progress can be made and it will be made. Decisions have already been made that have not been announced. President Bush has agreed to take North Korea off the terrorism list and the Trading With the Enemy Act. The United States has agreed to do it and it will do it. It is fooling around with the date for reasons having to do with Japan mostly. But these decisions have been made. The North Koreans have already announced that an inspection team including Americans will go to North Korea and continue inspections, which has recently been done to show they have completely shut down one functioning nuclear reactor—which they have. The next inspection is going to be of greater importance because they are going to be able to inspect the aluminum tubing that was allegedly used to create new centrifuges, which would have allowed North Korea to make a program to enrich uranium to the point to be used to make nuclear weapons, so-called highly-enriched uranium. All indications are they are going to find that the aluminum tubing is there, it has never been made into centrifuges, and this whole thing that caused the breakdown of the Agreed Framework, the earlier agreement on North Korean nuclear weapons, was a fiction. There was no highly-enriched uranium program in North Korea, but the North Koreans at one time admitted there was—although there is controversy about what they actually said back in 2002—and then they’ve been vehemently denying. If you inspect the aluminum tubing and you find it is still there and it hasn’t been made into centrifuges, where was this big program everybody was so afraid of?

Is this the same kind of aluminum tubing that Iraq was accused of using to make nuclear weapons?

The same sort of thing.

Talk about the two Koreas because that’s the big political issues in South Korea as well. I was amused at the comments by [South Korean] President Roh saying that he found the North Koreans very uneasy when people were talking about reform and openness. He said when the terms reform and openness came up, that made the North‘s top leaders uneasy, suggesting that North Korea, like China, was seeking economic growth without political change. Do you think in the next few years they will actually get to a peace treaty?  

I don’t know. We’re talking about a peace treaty between North and South. They could write one and if they both agree to cooperate, there is no reason why they can’t promulgate it. Of course this is not a job for Roh, who only has four months left in office and only two months before the next election. It’s a job for his successor. The front runner for the job is a man named Lee Myung-bak from the conservative party known as GNP. He is a person whom I had conversations with twice and he has no intention to turn the clock back. But he would be more cautious about moving ahead than Roh Moo-hyun at this stage. The rapprochement between the two Koreas will go ahead with a few setbacks and strains here and there and a little more slowly than Roh Moo-hyun is doing it now, but it will move ahead unless there are some basically North-generated problems.

At the moment, I don’t see it. North Korea needs to have a period of peace. The remarks by Roh Moo-hyun suggesting the North may not be ready for internal change are right at the moment. But North Korea is a country that has steeled itself off  from the rest of humanity for quite a few decades. And it has tried to keep people from finding out much about the outside world. All of that has changed. It changes because of technology. It is changing because of a new generation of Koreans, both North and South. Very large numbers of the North Korean population have much more information about the outside world than they ever had, sneaking in across the border with China, [with] cellphones and DVDs. South Korean TV dramas are very popular in North Korea, although they are not approved by the government. In a way, this is the best type of propaganda. It is not overt, but North Koreans can see these dramas, which were made for dramatic purposes, and as they watch them they can see the way that South Koreans live. They can see their cars, their clothes, their houses. They can see other things and realize that any notion that North Korea is the most advanced country in the world as they used to be taught is complete nonsense.

It reminds me of the old days in the Soviet Union, when people rushed to see American movies to see what life was like in the United States. 

You can carry an analogy too far, but something we learned from the Soviet Union is that if you are in a dark room and open the door a crack, you have quite a big effect, and that is true in North Korea as well. Let me add that I don’t see any uprising of people or anything of that sort in North Korea. It is still a police state and the population has no weapons. It is a country ruled by a tiny elite. But as ideas germinate, they begin to have an effect even on that tiny elite and have an effect on the people. The next generation of North Korean leaders—and Kim Jong-Il is reported not in great health—may be different.

Let’s go back to the U.S.-North Korea relationship. We seem to be moving fairly rapidly to a normalization process with North Korea. In the Clinton administration there were talks about setting up an embassy in North Korea, but the talks broke down. Do you think we will get there in the remainder of the Bush administration, or will we have to wait until 2009? 

The problem here as it was in the Clinton administration is that North Koreans are not enthusiastic about doing it. They already have a mission in New York at the United Nations. But they don’t have American diplomats and CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] personnel roaming around North Korea and I don’t think they want it. Also, in practical terms, North Korea is broke. It doesn’t have any money and even when its diplomats travel they often ask Americans or whoever their hosts are to pay for the trip because they don’t have any money. So for them to buy a building or even lease a building and to buy a mission in Washington D.C. costs a lot of money, which they don’t have. I’m not so sure that will happen. But there will be more interactions, more interchange, there could be more Americans who are able to go to North Korea. Already there are some of these tourist trips.

Any Americans who exchange groups?

Very little. North Koreans are very leery.

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