Loory: It has been 5½ years since President George Bush coined the term “axis of evil” to denote the three countries that he said were responsible for exporting terrorism throughout the world: North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Since he spoke, North Korea may have become a nuclear power. It is widely identified as a Stalinist state and its leader, Kim Jong-Il, as one buoyed up by a cult of the personality. For some time, there was talk of military action against North Korea to destroy its capability to develop nuclear weapons. Then diplomacy took over and North Korea quietly lost its notoriety as a hub on the axis of evil. This weekend, American and North Korean negotiators will meet in Geneva to discuss American support for a denuclearized North Korea. Japanese and North Korean negotiators will meet in Mongolia to discuss how North Korea can deal with its kidnapping of several Japanese in the 1970s, and preparations will continue for a summit meeting between South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun and North Korea’s Kim in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Diplomacy seems to be overriding belligerency in dealing with North Korea, and progress seems to be happening towards defusing tension on the Korean Peninsula. Is that really so? How did it happen, and what is the outlook for the future?
Jung Sung-ki, staff reporter, The Korean Times, Seoul, Korea: Public sentiment on the upcoming summit is divided. Most of all, people hope the talks will provide momentum to reduce nuclear weapons and that the meeting will set the stage for replacing the current armistice on the peninsula. Skepticism is high that the summit will end up as a political show without any tangible result towards a denuclearization process because South Korea has no leverage towards having North Korea scrap its nuclear program.
Loory: How is the Bush administration reacting to what is going on?
Woosuk Choi, Washington bureau chief, Chosun Ilbo, Washington, D.C.: Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state, recently reiterated that the U.S. fully supports the summit meetings and has consulted with the South Korean government about the process. If South Korea provides aid and money, that is a disincentive for North Korea to come to the table to talk about the denuclearization process. So although it gives full support, the U.S. is cautious, and it is staying in keen consultation with the South Korean government.
Loory: What is driving North Korea to be more accommodating?
Mike Chinoy, senior fellow on Korean security, Pacific Council on International Policy, Los Angeles: Since the early 1990s, North Korea’s goal has been to guarantee the security of its regime by securing a deal with the U.S. that would allow North Korea to survive as is. On one hand, Korea is seeking that diplomatic deal, while on the other hand, it’s ensuring the deal is not done from a position of weakness by pursuing nuclear weapons and keeping up its missile program. After North Korea tested its nuclear bomb last October and it looked as if the Bush administration’s policy was not going to work, there was a dramatic reversal in Washington. Now the administration is giving North Korea the bilateral dialog it has long demanded. In that context, the six-party talks have led to the freezing of the North’s main nuclear site at Yongbyon and has set the stage for taking steps to dismantle the North’s nuclear program.
Loory: Will there be a settlement of the Korean War and perhaps a reunification of the country?
Don Kirk, Korea correspondent, Christian Science Monitor, Washington, D.C.: Reunification is not likely, but there is a move towards stability and greater relations and trade. North Korea wants diplomatic relations with the U.S., and it wants the U.S. to take North Korea off the list of terrorist nations. The U.S. is not about to agree to everything right away, but the U.S. is willing to talk about it, which it was not willing to do previously. One great element is that the U.S. cannot afford a war on two fronts. Wars are going in the Middle East, and the U.S. doesn’t have the resources, the manpower or the will to risk a second Korean War.
Loory: Recent newspaper articles say that things may be loosening a little bit in North Korea. Is that so, and what impact might that have?
Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia editor, The London Times, Tokyo: No one really knows what is going on inside the minds and offices of the senior North Korean leadership. Economic reforms have been consistent in the past few years, and to a certain extent, there are now free markets in North Korea. In a completely controlled state economy, that is quite a development politically.
Chinoy: The North has experimented with economic reform. More foreign business people are traveling there to look into opportunities, but the key thing is whether the North and the U.S. can find some rapprochement. North Korea has consistently felt that it was under threat from the U.S. With genuine progress, that dynamic could change. The best outcome would be for North Korea to begin to engage with the rest of the world and to gradually institute economic reform and growing contact, especially with South Korea.
Loory: Is North Korea still engaged in building nuclear weapons and does it have a nuclear stockpile?
Kirk: North Korea does have a nuclear stockpile and anywhere from six to a dozen nuclear warheads. How capable it is of using those warheads is another matter. It doesn’t have a missile that will fire them or an aircraft that can drop them. However, North Korea also has a highly enriched uranium program, which the U.S. has been complaining about and North Korea has been denying exists. The Kim regime seems to be all about ensuring its own survival, and it’s worrisome not to see any serious reform movement.
Loory: Is Japan’s attitude towards North Korea softening at all?
Parry: The Japanese feel the threat of North Korea very deeply, partly because of their geographical proximity. If North Korea was going to launch a nuclear weapon, it would likely lob it at the former aerial aggressor Japan. Another important issue for Japan is the abduction of a number of Japanese by North Korea during the 1970s and 1980s. Kim admitted this about five years ago, and it caused outrage. Japan now takes the hardest line of any of the six parties in the six-party talks, but it’s not a position that the Japanese government is comfortable with. Recently there have been signs that the Japanese may be taking a more conciliatory approach. After the recent floods in North Korea, the Japanese foreign minister surprisingly suggested that Japan might consider giving aid. If that were to happen, that would signal a definite softening of the Japanese line.
Loory: We could well have an example on the Korean peninsula of how diplomacy can triumph more than military action. Let’s hope that’s really so. And if it is, let’s hope that powerful governments take notice.
Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Devin Benton,
Yue Li and Catherine Wolf.