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Olympics Détente? Professor Carriere, Korea Expert, Has Been Watching Carefully
The spectacle of the PyeongChang Olympics has seemingly opened a sliver of opportunity for diplomacy between North Korea and South Korea.
South Korean and North Korean athletes, performers and delegates walked together under one flag at the Opening Ceremonies. South Korean President Moon Jae-In celebrated the opening with Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. And an invitation was made for Moon to meet with Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang.
Frederick Carriere, research professor of political science and PCI senior fellow in the Korean Peninsula Affairs Center at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, has been carefully watching the sports diplomacy unfold. He was executive vice president of The Korea Society in New York City and, prior to that, lived in Korea for over 20 years, during which he spent many years with the Korea Fulbright Commission.
Carriere, who specializes in the foreign relations of North and South Korea, Track II diplomacy, the geopolitics of Northeast Asia, and the culture and history of the Korean Peninsula, shares his thoughts on what is taking place and what could evolve in this ever-delicate situation.
01What do you make of this show of diplomacy between South Korea and North Korea at the Olympics? Could it lead to something more?
There’s a history of events like the Olympic Games being used as an opportunity to promote a thaw in relations. In these competitions, North Koreans readily cheer for South Koreans, just as South Koreans cheer for North Koreans. Their shared Korean identity usually trumps all of the other obstacles that might easily arise. There’s an overwhelming emotion in the air in these situations and a sense of camaraderie that’s associated naturally with sports and with artistic performances as well.
The fundamentally positive aspect of what’s happening around the 2018 winter Olympics is that this initiative is being undertaken by the Koreans themselves. It’s been clear for a long time to most serious Korea observers that the best potential for a resolution of the conflict on the Korean peninsula lies in the two Koreas themselves finding some way to engage each other in the process of reconciliation on a sustainable basis.
The outside parties to the conflict embroiling the two Koreas—especially the United States, China, Japan and Russia—can play either a facilitator role or be obstacles. The situation facing them is like trying to intervene in a family relationship that has almost totally broken down. No matter how skillful their intervention may be, the outside parties are not going to be able to solve this domestic conflict. On the other hand, Koreans are all cousins to some degree, and consequently they can and need to find ways to be comfortable with each other.
02Attempts to meet and talk peace has happened before. Why have they failed?
I wouldn’t say nothing ever comes of it. In 1994, there was an extremely serious crisis on the Korean peninsula. The U.S. almost went to war with North Korea, under circumstances all too similar to what we’ve been facing recently, including actual talk of a preemptive strike. Jimmy Carter went to Pyongyang and met with Kim Il-sung, who was the North Korean leader at that time. And that meeting was a breakthrough; later the Agreed Framework was negotiated, similar to the current day’s deal with Iran, in which it was arranged for there to be International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in North Korea’s nuclear facility.
There were no nuclear weapons in North Korea at that point; the path to weapons was blocked by the IAEA inspection cameras constantly surveying the facility, and the threat was kept at bay in this way until the agreement collapsed in 2002. If it hadn’t been for the 1994 Agreed Framework, and the moratorium it imposed, North Korea could have more than 100 nuclear weapons today.
Why did the agreement collapse in 2002? There are important clues in the memoirs of [then secretary of state] Condi Rice and [then under-secretary of state for arms control and international security] John Bolton who were pivotal players during the Bush 43 administration. The bottom line is that Republican hardliners in the U.S. government dearly wanted to collapse the agreement, and worked hard to achieve this objective without any thought about “the day after” or what restraints were going to replace it.
There was also the Six-Party Talks process initiated by China, which in 2005 resulted in what is still a good model of how we might proceed to a mutually acceptable end game for the current standoff with North Korea. These talks led to a formal commitment by North Korea to denuclearize under certain conditions. When the conditions were not met—for complicated and mutually recriminating reasons—North Korea took a fateful decision in 2006 to conduct its first nuclear test.
To say that we’ve had no successes then is simply wrong. It’s more a matter of the determination of various parties to shirk their responsibility for doing the hard work of trying to negotiate a sustainable way forward.
03Is the idea of reunification a generational notion for South Koreans? How might older South Koreans, who have more memories of the war between the two nations, think about reunification in comparison to younger South Koreans?
It’s a fluid situation. Among the older generation there are many who absolutely hate North Koreans—all they remember is that there were atrocities and deaths, including family members, associated with the invasion of the South by the North. Those who originally hailed from the North, but fled South due to the war, have bitter memories of being expelled from their ancestral homes and properties. Among the older generation, however, there also are many who remember a unified Korea and who want to get back to that time.
As for the younger generation, of course, they have no firsthand experience of a unified Korea. And, due to the transformation of everyday life in South Korea brought about by the last couple of decades of globalization, many younger South Koreans reportedly feel they have more of an affinity culturally with Germans, French or Americans than they do with North Koreans. They also are not thrilled by the fact that they might have to give up a lot of material advantages in order to help pull the impoverished people of North Korea up to their level in the aftermath of reunification.
For these reasons, there is a potential preference among many younger Koreans for maintaining the status quo of national division. Still, there’s a potential as well that the unavoidable realization “we are all Koreans” will begin to forge a sense of camaraderie even among the most resistant millennials. After all, for better or for worse, ethnic nationalism has always been a factor in Korea. It is a factor that outsiders may not appreciate fully if they don’t know that essentially the same people have occupied the Korean peninsula for at least two millennia.
04What are the next steps from here for North Korea and South Korea? What will you be looking for in this unfolding story?
What I’m hoping for is that those Americans who are considered Korea experts and who have influence on our government will encourage the Trump administration to do everything it can to support the ongoing efforts at reconciliation by our South Korean allies. I have this hope not only because I’d like to see reconciliation proceed on the Korean peninsula for the sake of the Koreans themselves but also because I don’t want the United States to be involved in a potential nuclear war. The U.S. does not have a better solution for avoiding such a horrific tragedy. All the Trump administration has going for itself right now is a coercive strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ even though there’s virtually no likelihood that this strategy by itself is going to solve the problem.
The main problem for South Koreans at this moment is to figure out how to get sufficient running room from its partners—especially the U.S.—to continue to pursue the path of reconciliation with the North. It is especially important to the Moon administration in South Korea to deal with its counterparts in North Korea without running afoul of the desires and intentions of the Trump administration. That’s a serious conundrum, in the end, all the more so because the entire process might be derailed by a tweet tomorrow morning by President Trump. Everyone knows or should know that denuclearization—which even North Korea has committed to cooperate in bringing about under the right conditions—is the end game. It’s not what you get up front.