History carries an immediacy in North Korea that is incomprehensible to most Americans,” said historian Bruce Cumings in his keynote speech at a Korea peace conference this week. Most Americans, he said, know little or nothing about the Korean War, an experience taught in North Korea as a “determining holocaust” that colors everything they think about the United States and what it might do to them. He was speaking at “Off Ramps to War: Paths to Building Peace with North Korea,” held at George Washington University on June 13 and organized by the Korea Peace Network, a coalition led by the American Friends Service Committee and Women Cross DMZ.

Professor Bruce Cumings (center) with Christine Ahn (left) of Women Cross DMZ and former Defense Secretary William Perry (right).

Cumings discussed the past twenty years of U.S. policy on North Korea and said everything, except direct talks, has proven to fail. “North Korea has had sanctions since 1949. It’s the most sanctioned country in the world,” he said, “Since 1989, people have been waiting for North Korea to collapse. In a few years, North Korea would have been around as long as the Soviet Union.” He also said it doesn’t make sense to rely on China to restrain North Korea, because hardliners in China like North Korea as it provides a strategic buffer against the United States.

Direct talks, on the contrary, have worked, said Cumings. “North Korea didn’t have an ounce of plutonium from 1994 to 2002,” he noted, referring to the period following the Agreed Framework, brokered by former President Jimmy Carter during the Clinton administration. In the Agreed Framework, North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium production in exchange for U.S.’ commitment to normalize relations and provide light water reactors for peaceful energy purposes. North Korea upheld its end of the bargain for eight years, but the United States did not. In the subsequent George W Bush administration, “John Bolton [then-Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security] purposely broke that agreement,” said Cumings.

Cumings noted that South Korea’s new president Moon Jae-in wants to engage North Korea like the previous Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations but walks a tight rope and feels obligated to show that he won’t stray too far from Washington’s policy. As a path forward, he said, the United States needs to normalize relations with North Korea in return for a cap on the country’s nuclear and missile tests before it acquires a full arsenal. He also called for an end to U.S.’ wartime operational control, which gives the United States command over South Korean troops during wartime, and finally, a peace agreement to end the ongoing Korean War.

Dealing with N Korea as it is, not as we want it to be

Cumings’ call for a peaceful resolution to the Korea crisis was echoed by former Defense Secretary William Perry, who served during the Clinton administration and helped to negotiate the Agreed Framework. “We have to deal with North Korea as it is and not as we wish it to be,” he said, also at the conference, “We violated this many times with terrible consequences.”

Perry left the Pentagon in 1997, but Clinton called him back when the U.S. congress and the Japanese diet threatened to scuttle the Agreed Framework. His efforts, referred to as the “Perry process,” led to the signing of the Joint Communique in the last year of the Clinton administration. The Joint Communique stated that neither side has hostile intent toward each other and both will move toward normalizing relations. It also limited the range of North Korean missiles. The historic agreement was undermined by the subsequent George W Bush administration, which called North Korea part of the “axis of evil” and threatened preemptive nuclear strikes against the country.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry

Recounting the New York Philharmonic’s performance in Pyongyang in 2006, Perry remembered North Korean and U.S. flags draping each side of the concert hall while the symphony played the North Korean and U.S. anthems. “Everyone stood up for the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’” he said, “And when they played ‘Arirang’ about lost lovers longing to be reunited, I saw hardened North Korean generals with tears dripping down their faces. The entire hall stood in standing ovation that lasted for twenty minutes, and in that moment, I thought, ‘This might be a turning point.’”

Perry was the only U.S. official who had accepted the North Korean invitation to attend the event. He remembered speaking with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who declined the invitation and remarked privately to him, “It’s only a musical performance.” “North Korea had intended to offer an opening [through the invitation],” said Perry, “I thought at the time that it might be our last chance.”

Noting that North Korea has survived despite the disappearance of all “Stalinist regimes,” Perry said, “They must be doing something right by their standards.” Understanding what the opponent wants is fundamental to diplomacy, he said, but the United States has not been listening to North Korea. “We need to understand that North Korea wants regime survivability, and economic incentives are secondary,” he said.

North Korea—which has a large arsenal of small and medium-range ballistic missiles already operational and will in time acquire an intercontinental ballistic missile—may threaten and bluster, said Perry, but it will not use its nuclear weapons in an unprovoked attack. “Nukes will continue to be important for achieving their international objectives, but they’re only important as long as they don’t use it,” he said, “North Korea is not planning to launch an attack on Seoul or Tokyo.”

Referring to the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” as “ineffective policy,” Perry noted, “[We’ve had] sixteen years of pressure on North Korea, and the result is a nuclear arsenal and a long-range missile.”

Persuading North Korea to give up nuclear weapons, which made sense back in 1999 when the country didn’t yet have them, is no longer a reasonable goal now that North Korea has an arsenal, said Perry. Noting that he sees a promising window for negotiation in the current moment, he suggested the United States assure the North Koreans that it will not destabilize the regime, then partner with China to negotiate a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. “It’s a goal worth having,” he said, “Otherwise, within a few years, they will be testing hydrogen weapons and ICBMs.”

A freeze would enable the United States to greatly reduce danger, create a potential platform to rollback North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the future, and more importantly, create conditions for dialogue between the North and South. “A peace agreement is possible if only we have the will to pursue it,” he concluded.

On the question of U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in Korea, Perry said, “The only reason the United States should supply the THAAD to South Korea is if South Korea wants it and requests it.” If President Moon decides he doesn’t want the THAAD system, he said, “We should gracefully withdraw the system. THAAD has no ability to provide an effective defense against an attack from North Korean missiles. Even if it operates exactly as advertised, it is ineffective against the simplest possible decoys, and I am completely confident that North Korea can easily build decoys. THAAD will not defend South Korea from a North Korean attack.”

By Hyun Lee

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