KOREA: 'What are allies for if not helping out in times of need?'
Karin Palmquist

In October 2002, the United States accused North Korea of running a secret uranium enrichment program - a direct violation of a 1994 agreement that had shelved Pyongyang's nuclear program. North Korea's response - kicking out UN inspectors monitoring its facilities, restarting a reactor and withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - further propelled the crisis.

Close to a year later, in August 2003, a first round of talks aimed at persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions was held in Beijing among the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. Since then, two more rounds have been completed, and a fourth round was scheduled to take place in Beijing later this month.

Now revelations by South Korea two weeks ago that the country had conducted unauthorized experiments to enrich uranium four years ago, and further reports last week that South Korean scientists had extracted a small amount of plutonium in secret research in the early 1980s, might further stall resumption of the talks.

DiplomaticTraffic.com talked to Korea's ambassador to Washington, Han Sung-joo, about the prospects for the talks.

"Unfortunately, I am no more hopeful today that I was two weeks ago," Ambassador Han said. "There was the third round of the six-party meeting in June. At that time it was agreed that the fourth round would take place before the end of September. We don't have a date for the fourth round and we don't even know if it will take place."

"Everyone is trying to persuade North Korea to come and not wait for the US elections in November. I think that is one of the factors…. I think their calculation is that regardless of who wins the election there will be a period of hiatus for several months. In that time North Korea can work on its nuclear programs without additional pressure from the outside. From their point of view, whether as a weapon or a bargaining chip, they expect to claim more in return for what they actually have, or are suspected to have. [This bargaining] is risky and dangerous in the longer term. The United States and other countries are prepared to exercise the maximum amount of patience before letting it get to a real crisis. North Korea wants to make full use of that, even as they profess their willingness to resolve the issue and denuclearize the Korean peninsula. I don't know if North Korea will or will not give up its nuclear capabilities. We will proceed with the assumption that we will find a peaceful resolution," the ambassador said.

Asked why gulag-type prison camps in North Korea have not generated more attention in the media and not been the object of international pressure, the ambassador said:

"Historically, a gulag has never been removed or reduced through negotiations. It takes the circumstances to change. In the Soviet Union regime and system changes brought about the end of the gulag. In the case of North Korea, we not only have this issue. There are other serious issues to deal with, like the nuclear issue. Without the promise of improving the human rights situation we might affect the negotiating process in a counterproductive way. If we overemphasize this issue, we might not help [those in the camps], but even make their situation even more difficult. There are three elements we have to consider: What is the best way of dealing with this? What is the strategy in the longer, broader perspective? And finally, what impact will it have on other issues?

"North Korea has a serious shortage of food. We want to help with this, but unfortunately North Korea would rather not get the help than deal with its human rights problems. Pressuring them on the prison camp issue could affect this. Hunger is also a human rights violation."

In an effort to make the US military more mobile and flexible, and as a result better suited to fight the war on terrorism, the Pentagon plans for a worldwide realignment of American forces. For South Korea, this means a reduction of about 12,500 from the 37,000 US troops stationed in the country, and a redeployment of the ones that are staying to a site further from the North Korean border.

"There are two things happening," the ambassador said. "One is the redeployment of US troops in Korea from the DMZ (demilitarized zone) 70-80 kilometers south of where they are now, out of artillery range of North Korea. The other thing is the reduction of US troops by 12,500, from about 37,000 to 25,000. This is part of the reshaping of the US forces, in terms of weapons systems and organization. The idea is to make US forces around the world more viable. There is an implication that this does not mean a reduction of the US commitment or capability to deter and defend. There is also the understanding that this will involve more defense spending on South Korea's part, both because of the cost involved with the relocation and to make for changes that will take place. One important part of the negotiation is for us to have enough time to prepare, both financially and militarily. The discussion is going on without a great deal of problems."

Are there movements asking for Americans to leave Korea?

"There are groups, NGOs and individuals, that are saying that US troops are in Korea for purposes other than defending Korea. They're asking why we are paying for it. There are people calling for the withdrawal of the US troops in Korea.

"Interestingly, the redeployment and the reduction have met opposition on both sides, both from the left and the right. Those that originally advocated US withdrawal say the redeployment means substitution for more potent weapons systems. And there were worries that the United States were planning to launch an attack on North Korea without risking retaliation on US troops close to the border. Those are the exceptions, though. The polls consistently show that a large majority of Koreans want US troops to stay," the ambassador said.

The move of the troops is not the only move planned in Korea in the near future. A transfer of Korea's administrative capital to the center of the peninsula will begin in 2012 with key government agencies, including the president's official residence, the Blue House, and end around 2014.

"A government committee has chosen the location for the administrative capital," the ambassador said. "It is a challenge of course; for one thing there is a legal challenge. Our high court has yet to rule on the transfer. This move will cost a lot of money and take a long time. We can foresee some problems before the transfer has even started. Consensus and acceptance is yet to be achieved. The government would like to make it a certainty. All foreign embassies have been called to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and told of the move. Seoul will remain the financial center of the country, like New York and Sao Paolo are [in the United States and Brazil]. The government hopes to make Seoul an economic and financial center for northeast Asia. Building a financial hub is not like building an industrial center. A financial center emerges, rather than is created. Deregulation [will help the process] by making it profitable. We see Singapore and Hong Kong as models."

Working closely with the United States to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, Korea is also an ally of the United States in the War on Terror.

"We have 60 troops in Afghanistan and we were one of the first countries to open an embassy in Kabul," the ambassador said. "With 3000 troops in Iraq, we're the third largest country after the United States and Britain. Iraq has been politically a difficult policy to maintain. One Korean national was kidnapped and beheaded…. We are in Iraq to help rebuild the country, but we are also there because we are an ally of the United States. I believe there is an appreciation of that in the United States. The United States sacrificed 37,000 lives in Korea. What are allies for if not helping out in times of need and difficulty? Sometimes long-term allies take each other for granted. In the case of Korea we can't be too complacent about our security situation."

Biography of Ambassador Han
Ambassador Han Sung-joo was appointed ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the United States in April 2003. Prior to this, he was acting president of Korea University, which has been his academic home since 1978.  From 1999-2001, Ambassador Han served as the chairman of the East Asia Vision Group.  He was the minister of foreign affairs from 1993-94 and played a key role in coordinating the U.S. and South Korean policies in relation to the North Korean nuclear issue.  Long an advisor to the South Korean government, he visited P'yongyang as a member of the Red Cross Delegation to discuss and arrange family reunions and other humanitarian issues.  Ambassador Han has also taught at City University of New York (1970-78), Columbia University (1986-87) and Stanford University (1992).  He was an international columnist for Newsweek from 1984-93 and has authored many articles and publications on domestic and international politics.  His most recent books include "Korean Diplomacy in an Era of Globalization" (1985) and "Changing Values in Asia" (1999).  Ambassador Han received his B.A. in political science from Seoul National University and his Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley.