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Changing Relationships in Northeast Asia

Changing Relationships in Northeast Asia
Date/Time: Jun 07, 2005 / 5.00pm

Ambassador Hubbard shared with us his general insights on the general issues on relationships in Northeast Asia particularly on the Korean Peninsula – North (1) and South (2) Korea as well as the U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK) relations.

Ambassador Hubbard started off noting that US – ROK relations has been good and has contributed to peace and stability in the region for the last 50 years. Giving an example of the close ties, he told the audience of the strong ROK support in the war against terrorism. South Korea in fact has the third largest contingent of troops in Iraq after the US and UK. This, in an important sense also demonstrates South Korea’s growing international role and its acceptance of responsibilities beyond the peninsula which is something that the U.S.welcomes.

Though concerned about international security and terrorism, many Koreans have seen America’s focus on terrorism as detracting from the commitment to Korea, an anxiety that was exacerbated by unexpected US plans to reduce forces and the sudden decision to dispatch the second infantry division troops to Iraq. On the security alliance, the U.S. plans to reduce its troops from 37,000 to 25,000 gradually by 2008. Part of the restructuring involve moving the American troop to the south of Han river (away from the North’s artillery range) and to invest in upgrading of military equipments.

Notwithstanding the Korean government’s support on Afghanistan and Iraq, the Korean public has exhibited some misgivings about alleged U.S. unilateralism. More profoundly, Korean national attention remained riveted on issues closer to home, such as North Korea, the stability of the US military presence, and Korea’s economic and strategic place in a Northeast Asiathat is increasingly driven by China’s expanding role.

The unease over perceived shifts in US priorities has been exaggerated by a dramatic change in political leadership – one that brought to power a younger generation that scarcely remembered the Korean War and grew up with largely negative views of the U.S.and the value of the alliance. In simple terms, Korean politics took a turn to the center-left just as US politics took a turn to the right. Despite the political gap between the leadership, there is still strong support for U.S. troops in South Korea and thus, the relationship has been manageable.

However, these changes in relations with South Korea affect the international balance, particularly in Northeast Asia. Historically South Korea sees itself as being wedged between greater powers like China and Japan, and China was seen to be an enemy to South Korea as much as the Japanese. However, with the increasing importance in trade following the normalisation of Sino-ROK ties, China is now South Korea’s biggest trading partner. Partially as a result of China’s market, South. Korea is currently the tenth largest economy in the world. The reliance on China meant that South Korea waivers between the China and the U.S.camp.

On the important issue of North Korea, Ambassador Hubbard stressed that North Korea remains a tremendous challenge for the alliance and they have yet to overcome a public perception that U.S. and ROK are not following the same course on this critical issue. The perceived difference over North Korea is at the centre of unease in the relationship. South Koreans shares the U.S. concerns over nuclear weapons and strongly support the six party talks, giving credit to the U.S. for launching the talks. At the same time, South Koreans place the highest priority on peace on the Peninsula and genuinely favour engagement over confrontation. While South Korea sees the North as a declining brother and view their role as a peace maker (apparent in the Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policy), U.S. sees the North as a rogue state who would never give up on nuclear weapons. This coupled with U.S. strong and harsh words against the regime in the North and their leader Kim Jung Il has caused a divide in perception between the U.S. and South Korea. ROK has always preferred the soft landing approach for fear that a regime change would lead to breakdown of order and security with the spectre of inflooding refugees and the economic implications that these would have on ROK.

Despite the differences in perception, the dangers posed by North Korea are real and has gotten worse and must be addressed. The agreed framework that Ambassador Hubbard worked to put together in 1994 has fallen apart and according to him, North Korea has to date enough enriched uranium for eight nuclear warheads. Besides repeatedly violating the international non-proliferation obligations, the world also faces the prospect that North Korea could produce and then export fissile materials or weapons to terrorists. The U.S. intention is to deny terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism the material, technology, and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destructions.

As this is a global challenge, it has to be addressed by a combination of concerned states. This is why U.S. continues to emphasize the need for a multilateral approach to resolving the issue. Taking into account South Korea’s and the region’s need of a soft landing, the six-party talk is the best approach. At the same time, China’s active engagement with North Korea to persuade it to denuclearize is important.

On the U.S. side, they have to recognize the importance of “face” to the North Koreans. In order to bring North Korea to the table, the North’s sovereignty has to be respected. The U.S. can convince the North that they can gain more in security and economic through disarmament. The baseline is that, for North Korea to be a nuclear power is unacceptable to the U.S. Although negotiation is the way forward, Ambassador Hubbard is not optimistic that the North will give up its nuclear programme and testing. Where the “red line” is for U.S., South Korea and China will depend on how far the North will push their brinkmanship and the resort of governments and diplomats.

Many interesting questions were raised during the Q and A session, particularly with regards to North Korea.

On the questions relating to China - whether China can bring North Korea to heel; whether North Korea’s nuclear testing would be tolerated by China; and the Chinese perception of North Korea - Ambassador Hubbard certainly believed that the Chinese have a huge leverage over North Korea especially in fuel supply even though the Chinese always claim to have little influence. On the nuclear programme of North Korea, the Chinese has been seen to take a position similar to South Korea. Unlike the circumstances of nuclear testing in India, China has an indirect fear of a nuclear Japan. If North Korea’s nuclear test forced Japan to turn nuclear, China would find it necessary to draw the redline and to use their leverage against North Korea. However, Ambassador Hubbard also highlighted that from his experience in dealing with Japan, Japan is unlikely to go nuclear, as they would still prefer to be under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

On the question of economic development in North Korea, Ambassador Hubbard reiterated that North Korea could gain economic assistance by giving up its nuclear programme. Kim Jong Il faces bleak circumstances as economic assistance from China and South Korea will diminish if the nuclear crisis goes on for too long. Already international assistance is drying up. However, should Kim Jong Il give up its nuclear weapons, there would be a massive gain in aid, especially from Japan and the international financial community. In this case, the chances of North Korea surviving would be higher.

Lastly, on Ambassador Hubbard’s view of the most favourable scenario on the Korean Peninsula in the next 50 years, Mr Hubbard is unequivocal that a non-nuclear peninsula would benefit everyone. However, unification is not an easy process and it would take at least 25 years to bring North Korea closer to international norms and to match South Korea’s level of economic development. However, on the prospect of a reunified Korea, Japan and China may be less sanguine but nevertheless all would prefer a denuclearised North Korea. U.S. on a less optimistic note is less patient and finds it hard to visualise a smooth process and transition. In the meantime, a multilateral approach through the six-party talks remains as of now the best way forward for all parties.

1 North Korea’s official title is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)
2 South Korea’s official title is the Republic of Korea (ROK)

Report by Joanne Lin
SIIA Researcher and Public Education Coordinator


Ambassador Thomas C. Hubbard is currently the Senior Advisor of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer Feld law firm in Washington. He was the former ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2001-2004, completing a 39 year career in the Foreign Service in which he focused primarily on economic, political and military relations with key nations of East Asia. He was also the deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 1993-1996. Ambassador Hubbard previously served concurrently as a U.S. ambassador to the Philippines and to the Republic of Palau from Aug 1996 to Aug 2000.

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