Journalist and scholar Selig Harrison, a staunch proponent of peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula, died of myelodysplasia at the age of 89 on Dec. 30, 2016.
Harrison, who met with the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in 1994, urged President Obama at the start of his presidency in 2009 to declare his support for peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula and “set to rest North Korean fears that the United States will join the right-wing elements in Japan and South Korea now seeking reunification by promoting the collapse of the North Korean regime.”
Today, as Obama leaves office after eight years of a failed policy that has brought North Korea closer to developing a deliverable nuclear weapon, Harrison’s words, delivered in a statement to a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, seem prescient– “If the United States is unwilling to give up the option of using nuclear weapons against North Korea, it will be necessary to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea while maintaining adequate U.S. deterrent forces in the Pacific.”
Harrison’s son, Coleman Harrison, executive director of Massachusetts Peace Action, writes-
[Selig] Harrison was The Washington Post Bureau Chief in New Delhi and Tokyo in the 1960s and 1970s. He also covered New Delhi for the Associated Press in the 1950s and was managing editor of The New Republic. He was a Senior Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for 22 years, Director of Asian Studies at the Brookings Institution, a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
He played a leading role in arranging the nuclear agreement with North Korea that suspended the North Korean nuclear program from October, 1994 until December, 2002. In a Centennial review of the Carnegie Endowment’s achievements, it pointed to his three-hour meeting with the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung on June 9, 1994 as “ending a standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program that brought the United States to the brink of war.” Kim Il Sung’s acceptance of Harrison’s proposal for a freeze on its nuclear program in exchange for civilian nuclear reactors and improved relations with the United States set the stage for the detailed agreement negotiated by former President Jimmy Carter a week later that was formalized in an October US-North Korean accord known as the “Agreed Framework.”
Harrison was also the author of Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement (2002).
As tensions mount amidst political uncertainty in both the United States and South Korea, Harrison’s passing is the loss of an eloquent voice of reason and a great proponent of peace on the Korean peninsula.
Below is an excerpt from his 2009 testimony to a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee–
Looking ahead, the goal of the United States should be to cap the North Korean nuclear arsenal at its existing level and to move toward normalized relations as the necessary precondition for progress toward eventual denuclearization. The prospects for capping the arsenal at its present level have improved as result of Pyongyang’s June 13 announcement admitting that it has an R and D program for uranium enrichment. Since this program is in its early stages and it is not yet actually enriching uranium, there is time for the United States to negotiate inspection safeguards limiting enrichment to the levels necessary for civilian uses. Until now, North Korea’s denial of an R and D program has kept the uranium issue off the negotiating table and kept alive unfounded suspicions that it is capable of making weapons-grade uranium.
Progress toward denuclearization would require U.S. steps to assure North Korea that it will not be the victim of a nuclear attack. In Article Three, Section One of the Agreed Framework, the United States pledged that it “will provide formal assurances against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the United States” simultaneous with complete denuclearization. Pyongyang is likely to insist on a reaffirmation of this pledge. Realistically, if the United States is unwilling to give up the option of using nuclear weapons against North Korea, it will be necessary to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea while maintaining adequate U.S. deterrent forces in the Pacific.
The President set the tone for a new direction in U.S. relations with the Muslim world in Cairo. He acknowledged the legacy of colonialism in the Middle East, the impact of the Israeli occupation on the Palestinians and the U.S. role in overthrowing the elected Mossadegh regime in Iran. Similarly, he should break through the present poisonous atmosphere by expressing his empathy for the deepest feelings of the Korean people in both the North and the South. Visiting Pyongyang on March 31, 1972, the Reverend Billy Graham declared that “Korean unity was a victim of the cold war.” He acknowledged the U.S. role in the division of Korea and he prayed for peaceful reunification “soon.” President Obama should declare his support for peaceful reunification through a confederation, as envisioned in the North-South summit pledges of June, 2000, and October, 2007, in order to set to rest North Korean fears that the United States will join the right-wing elements in Japan and South Korea now seeking reunification by promoting the collapse of the North Korean regime. Above all, he should express his empathy for the painful memories of Japanese colonialism shared by all Koreans. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demonstrated complete insensitivity to these memories during hre Tokyo visit on February 18, 2009 by needlessly embroiling herself in the explosive abductee dispute between North Korea and Japan by ignoring Kim Jong Il’s apology to Prime Minister Koizumi on September 17, 2002. This is a bilateral dispute and, to paraphrase Susan Rice, “should not be allowed to complicate” the reduction of tensions with Pyongyang.
Harrison concluded by saying, “The U.N. sanctions have further strengthened [North Korean generals’] position because all North Koreans feel that they face a threat from the U.S. nuclear weapons deployed near their borders and would be united, in my view, if tensions resulting from attempts to enforce the sanctions should escalate to war.”
For more of Harrison’s writings on North Korea, read–
“Normalize and Disarm” — New York Times Op/ed, October 28, 2008
“Drawing a Line in the Water” — New York Times Op/ed, December 12, 2010
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