November 8, 1999
Volume 52, No. 11
James Laney talks about Korea before Nov. 11 event
On Nov. 11, Emory president emeritus James Laney, past U.S. Ambassador to Korea, will participate in a panel discussion on current tensions in the Korean Peninsula (see story, p. 1). In the following column, Laney shares his unique perspective on the importance of the upcoming event.
Q: Why is the Korean Peninsula such a strategic area for world peacekeeping efforts?
A: The Korean Peninsula today constitutes the single most dangerous flashpoint in the world for the United States. First of all, it's important to understand that what we have on the Korean Peninsula is only a cessation of hostilities-a truce-since the end of the Korean War in 1953. We do not have a peace treaty.
The United States has 37,000 troops in South Korea, with one division strategically placed right at the demilitarized zone to serve as a tripwire should hostilities break out. So the U.S. would be immediately involved in any war. And war in Korea today would mean many millions of casualties-a catastrophe that would make Kosovo or Iraq look minor by comparison. There are 15 million people in the Seoul metropolitan area, and this entire population is within the range of North Korean firepower. U.S. casualties alone would be comparable to the Korean War or to Vietnam.
Occasionally someone asks me, "What was your greatest accomplishment as ambassador in Korea?" And I answer: the fact that we didn't go to war. At one point in 1994, there was a very real chance that we would. The crisis was averted when former President Carter made a historic trip to North Korea, and the North Koreans agreed to a freeze on the manufacture of plutonium for nuclear weapons. During this time, by the way, Ambassador Lee was serving as deputy prime minister, and then prime minister, of South Korea. So as you can see, it's most appropriate that Ambassador Lee-an Emory alumnus-and President Carter and myself are all able to sit on a panel for the Emory community at a time when, once again, we see Korean Peninsula security issues in the news.
Q: Are you still involved in any formal or advisory way on current policy questions?
A: Yes, I currently co-chair the Council on Foreign Relations' Special Task Force on Korea, which plays a major advisory role regarding U.S. policy. For example, last fall my co-chair and I were concerned about congressional support for the Clinton Administration's Korean policy-the North Koreans had just test-fired a long-range ballistic missile over Japan-so we asked President Clinton to appoint an outside person of senior status to review U.S. policy and make recommendations. We also suggested that the U.S. seek a meeting in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to talk about what it might take to make progress toward reduction of tension.
The result was that President Clinton appointed William Perry, former secretary of defense, to work on this issue, which he has been doing for the past year. His assignment was to see how we might break the stalemate that has existed for a half-century and move toward a peace treaty. He presented his report in testimony before Congress just a few weeks ago (Oct. 12). So our panel discussion on Nov. 11 will definitely have some timely and probably controversial topics to cover.
Q: How do current U.S. policy initiatives on the Korean Peninsula relate to South Korean President Kim's so-called "sunshine policy" towards North Korea?
A: President Kim came into office in February 1998, so his enunciation of the "sunshine" policy came a bit before Mr. Perry's work. The idea comes from Aesop's Fables, the argument between the North Wind and the sun as to how they could get a man to remove his coat. President Kim said that, like in Aesop's Fable, the North has wrapped its heavy military cloak about it because it feels threatened. Let's reduce the threat and let a little sunshine in, he says, and soon they'll see that they no longer need such a heavy coat.
President Kim has encouraged not only governments but religious groups, humanitarian groups and even private corporations to make overtures to North Korea. And this has eased the situation considerably. The largest corporation in South Korea is up there, offering to build a factory and to help North Korea economically.
Something most Americans don't realize, I imagine, is that South Korea has a solid, modern economy that is rapidly approaching Italy's in terms of size. Today South Korea is the United States' fifth-largest trading partner, a bigger partner for us than either France or Germany.
Q: How successful are these tension-easing efforts likely to be?
A: I've long since quit predicting and I don't have any illusions about the North. We don't get discouraged, but we try not to make any claims.
The U.S. policy of deterrence is to avoid war and to show our determination that the North cannot get away with any aggression. In our overtures toward the North, we are not interested in trying to force them to collapse or to overthrow them; what we are interested in is stability on the peninsula. And we are willing to work with them if there is an appropriate reduction of tension. This means no nuclear activity and no missile testing.
At the same time, the North is in such economic disarray that it has
a terrible time trying to feed its people. It cannot continue in isolation;
this is simply a fact. We want them to understand that if they will simply
begin to cooperate, we will leave them alone and let them begin their long,
hard road to economic recovery and stability. But at the moment, their agriculture
doesn't work; their industry doesn't work; people aren't being fed. All
they've got is a big military, and what good is a big military if everything
else is collapsing?