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Panels Assess Prospects on Korea Peace Day
Martin Hart-Landsberg and Seung Hye Suh speak at the conference. (Photo by Margaretta Soehendro)

Panels Assess Prospects on Korea Peace Day

One scholar says the United States needs to adopt an approach that allows North and South Korea to normalize relations quickly.

North Korean people are not robots. They're real people.


According to one of six panelists who spoke at a Korea Peace Day Conference on the UCLA campus, the interests of the U.S. military establishment and defense contractors have played a role in the continued tension between the United States and North Korea. Among these interests is the desire to keep troops stationed in Asia and to maintain the defense budget in the post-Cold War era.

The UCLA Center for Korean Studies and the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea sponsored the Nov. 30, 2007, event. At the first of two afternoon panels, Seung Hye Suh, assistant professor of English at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., spoke about the consequences of nomenclature used to describe incarceration in the North. Suzy Kim, visiting assistant professor of East Asian studies at Oberlin College, discussed human rights in North Korea.

At the conference's second panel, Henry Em, an associate professor in the department of Korean history at Korea University, gave an overview of the of the Korean War. Alongside him, John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, spoke about the United States' and South Korea's differing perceptions of breakthroughs on the Korean peninsula. Karin Lee, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea, talked about the international response to August 2007 floods in the impoverished East Asian country.

It was Martin Hart-Landsberg, professor of economics and director of the political economy program at Lewis and Clark College, speaking on the first panel, who made the case about the role of the U.S. defense establishment in antagonism between the United States and North Korea. He argued that North Korea wanted to end hostilities and join the global community after the fall of the Soviet Union.

"While North Korea is far from an ideal regime… things changed in the '90s. And what changed was the U.S. determination—commitment, essentially—to push tension into war at the very time the North Koreans were looking to deescalate, for their own purposes, but ones we should have been pleased with," Hart-Landsberg said.

Hart-Landsberg said that the United States made a habit of evaluating North Korea based on worst-case scenarios. In 1992, the CIA claimed the country had developed one or two nuclear weapons based on a series of estimates stemming from the North's shutting down its small reactor in 1989 and reprocessing the fuel rods. Hart-Landsberg said the State Department rejected that claim, but the CIA asserted it often enough that it became fact. He cited a remark by James R. Clapper Jr., head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (1992–95), who said in an interview that he had to build a case for North Korean nuclear weapons with a conservative, worst-case approach, in spite of his own skepticism.

Hart-Landsberg argues the reality of the North Korean threat can be measured by its annual military budget, just under $2 billion. In military spending, South Korea has been running ahead North Korea every year since 1976 and now spends about $20 billion annually.

But regarding North Korea, the United States is only concerned with the nuclear issue; therefore, Hart-Landsberg argued, North Korea feeds the fear since it appears to be the only way to get the United States' interest. In spite of agreements made in 1994 and 2005, he said, the United States did not follow through with economic aid and North Korea restarted nuclear programs to try to bring it back to the negotiation table.

"It's this kind of continual lack of engagement—in fact, deliberate determination to not negotiate—that led the North to eventually fire missiles in July 2006 and explode a nuclear weapon in 2006," he said.

North Korea signed another agreement in February 2007, and for the second time since the end of the Korean War, leaders of the two Koreas met for a summit in October. But the United States recently told South Korea it was moving too fast in normalizing relations with North Korea, according to Hart-Landsberg.

He views U.S. responses to North Korea as part of a pattern in danger of repeating itself.

"North Korean people are not robots. They're real people. And so if we can normalize relations and reduce the intensification of these kinds of threats, it makes it easier for people in the South to engage the North. It makes it possible for us to engage the North. It makes it possible to develop the kind of dialogue and discussion and independent movements in the North that currently exist in the South," he said.