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International Security 27.1 (2002) 40-78

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Hawk Engagement and Preventive Defense on the Korean Peninsula

Victor D. Cha


In his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, President George W. Bush announced that as part of its post-September 11 security agenda, the United States would seek to prevent terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda from establishing links with three regimes—North Korea, Iraq, and Iran—that together form an "axis of evil." These regimes, declared Bush, are intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) with which to threaten the United States and its allies. 1 Bush's speech raises two dilemmas for the United States and its Asian allies regarding the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea).

The first involves understanding the significance of eighteen months of diplomatic initiatives by Pyongyang that began with the normalization of relations with the European Union, followed by a summit with the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) in June 2000, DPRK special envoy Gen. Myong-nok Jo's visit to Washington in August 2000, and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's trip to Pyongyang in October 2000. The juxtaposition of Bush's declaration with these initiatives raises more questions than it answers about U.S. perceptions of North Korea's intentions. Is the DPRK truly on the path to reform following the long period of uncertainty dating back to President Kim Il-sung's death in 1994? Is North Korea's current dictator, Kim Jong-il, [End Page 40] irrational and unpredictable or "very decisive and practical and serious"? 2 Or is he simply "evil"?

The second dilemma involves U.S. policy toward the North Korean regime. Bush's State of the Union address intimated that the United States may adopt a harder line toward North Korea, an action that would appear to contradict the findings of a comprehensive U.S. policy review issued in June 2001 calling for unconditional talks between Washington and Pyongyang on a range of issues including the DPRK's nuclear program, its production and export of ballistic missiles, and the conventional military posture on the peninsula. Indeed the policy review's recommendation of engagement with North Korea ran contrary to remarks made by President Bush on March 7, 2001, criticizing the "sunshine" or engagement policy of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. These remarks, in turn, disavowed earlier expressions of support by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell for continuing bilateral talks begun by the Clinton administration. 3 What then is the Bush administration's policy toward North Korea given the U.S. leadership's varied pronouncements? Has the path of engagement pursued by the United States, the ROK, and Japan from 1993 to 2000—aimed at trading economic and political inducements for an end to the development of weapons of mass destruction and the DPRK missile threat—been a success or a failure? What larger international relations theory lies behind U.S. engagement with the DPRK?

At the core of these questions are differing assessments of whether the conditions for effective engagement are present in the DPRK case. U.S., South Korean, and Japanese proponents of engagement along the lines of Kim Dae-jung's sunshine policy remain hopeful about the potential benefits of dialogue with North Korea. 4 They argue that the regime's threatening nature derives [End Page 41] from a classic security dilemma: Abandoned by its Cold War patrons, financially bankrupt, and politically isolated, the DPRK sees its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles as the only way to guarantee the regime's survival. Engagement in the form of normalized relations, economic carrots, and mutual threat reduction will ease Pyongyang's sense of insecurity, allowing it to move away from proliferation and toward reform. If Kim Jong-il has already chosen this path, then engagement confirms to him that U.S., South Korean, and Japanese intentions are benign. If he has not yet chosen this path, then it is only a matter of time before the increased benefits...