An Open Letter to President Obama: Peaceful Policies toward North Korea; the Campaign Promises You Made to Korean Americans
Dear President Obama, your surprise announcement on December 17 this year pronouncing the normalization of the U.S. relationship with Cuba was not much of a surprise at all to many Korean Americans, who worked hard for your election during your first campaign for the White House by forming a political action committee called “Korean Americans for Change Political Action Committee” (KACPAC).
This is because one of their major motivations supporting your candidacy during the time was your repeatedly publicized clear commitment to dialogue and negotiation with countries that are at odds with U.S., namely Cuba and North Korea. Many progressive Korean Americans at that time were of the opinion that, the tensions present in the Korean peninsula during that time, our fading hope for re-unification, and the emergence of a nuclear North, all stemmed from the Bush Administration’s harsh and unrealistic policy toward North Korea. Thus, your election campaign promises spelled hope for the beginning of a bright future in the Korean peninsula.
After your entry to White House, the hopes and expectations of Korean American supporters were heightened when they heard your Berlin Speech on world denuclearization and saw you being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
However, since then, there have been continuing disappointments as we observed your North Korea policy, called “Strategic Patience” which was recently tied to your so called “Asia Pivot Policy,” which, of course is your U.S.-China policy.
In terms of your policy toward North Korea, sanctions and embargos were tightened; dangerous military maneuvers were held seasonally right at the doorsteps of North Korea, including flights of nuclear bombers near North Korean air space. Almost every channel of contact with North Koreans, official or otherwise, has been closed from our end. Humanitarian aid, including food aid to the North Korean people, has been discontinued.
This dangerous hard-line policy observed by our government, led by you, was paralleled by the appearance of a conservative South Korean regime led by Myung-bak Lee, later followed by a second conservative Geun-hye Park two years ago. The pressure of these two right-wing conservatives has heightened the possibility of war in the peninsula again; a prospect that should not be even imagined.
Dear President Obama, the progressive Korean Americans who supported your candidacy in the past, still look upon you as a U.S. president who can play a peacemaker’s role in Korean peninsula and make a difference in the future of Korea. They still believe that you could carry out initiatives to bring about dialogue, negotiation and reconciliation in the relationship between our country, United States and North Korea.
Unlike Cuba, the improved relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) has a great potential to benefit Korean Americans and all Americans. One of the most important benefits would be to end the 70-year old enmity between the two countries, which started with an armistice agreement and no peace treaty after the Korean War. A peace treaty and diplomatic normalization between the U.S. and the DPRK would allow the DPRK to reduce its defense spending and move on with its economic agenda.
We all recall the fact that, in 1994, the two countries came very close to achieving this mutually-beneficial goal in the form of the “Agreed Framework” signed in Geneva during the last U.S. democratic administration under President Clinton. At that time, North Korea’s number-two man visited the White House and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang. We urge you to act so that this level of diplomatic normalization and civil discourse can be achieved once again.
The following statistics on North Korea are provided to show why the country is in such a tight economic bind, and how liberation from external threats, most of them coming from the U.S., is needed in order to restore the economy and shift resources from defense spending to fulfilling human need:
DPRK is about the size of the state of Maine, (approximately same size as South Korea), but has 24 million people, about half the population of South Korea, whose people are ethnically identical to the people in the South. The combined total Korean population of 72 million in the peninsula, is about that of Italy. North Korea’s GDP is estimated at $33 billion (about 1/30 of South Korea) and three percent of the U.S. GDP. North Korea spends 30 percent of its GDP on national defense, the highest rate in the world. South Korea spends about five percent of its GDP on national defense, but that amount is four times what North Korea spends.
Further, North Korea has 1.2 million men in arms (South Korea, about 650,000) and has acquired an obviously expensive nuclear arms capability based on both plutonium and uranium technology. However, unlike the U.S. and other nuclear countries, North Korea labels its nuclear technology as a “Force of Deterrence,” not as an offensive weapon system. Its leaders have repeatedly declared that their nuclear force is no threat to any countries except those who threaten them, like us, the United States..
These series of statistics on North Korea provides an almost self-explanatory reason why the country is in such a tight economic bind, and why loosening it requires liberation from external threats, sanctions, and embargoes, most of them imposed by the U.S. over the past 70 long years!
Dear President Obama, in spite of this political, military and economic isolation, the DPRK has sustained its national integrity, and its model socialist political and economic system has emerged intact, after 70 years. This is in contrast to the fate sustained by many of the eastern European countries.
In other words, as you stated in your recent speech about Cuba so clearly and frankly, isolation, sanction, embargo and military pressure failed to achieve regime change. This is the case in North Korea as well as Cuba. Therefore, the policy of “Strategic Patience” toward North Korea needs to change. This success of North Korea is not achieved only through military strength, rather, it depends on the willingness and determination of the North Korean people to bear and accept continued economic hardships, including food shortages, and compromises in civil liberties needed to deal with the harsh realities in their society brought by externally-imposed isolation.
In other words, contrary to our common perception that North Korea is a “hermit kingdom,” we need to view North Korea as a country whose door is locked from the outside, by us, the U.S. As you know, North Korea is a member of the United Nations and maintains full diplomatic relations with its 165 member countries. It has maintained consistent international relationships with many countries over the years.
There is an additional factor, the idea of “Juche” ideology, which contributes to the cohesiveness of the North Korean society. This idea is often misunderstood and misjudged by outside observers as being authoritarian and dictatorial. However, it is simply a ruling philosophy through which North Koreans view their society as an organism that needs to be led by a single leadership entity venerated unconditionally by the people with an almost religious fervor. Therefore their often idiosyncratic, often shrill-sounding reactions to criticism of their leadership for so-called human right issues must be understood in the context of their unique political ideology.
Indeed, the “Juche” ideology explains, in part, the survival of the regime for the past 70 years despite the hostility of the U.S. The Cuban regime and the North Korean regime are alike in the respect that neither has collapsed even after 53 years and 70 years, respectively, of isolation by the U.S. You noted the persistence of the Cuban regime in your speech as a reason to normalize diplomatic relations. Why not look at North Korea in the same light? Indeed, the policy of “Strategic Patience” will only serve as a justification for a North Korea’s continuing a strong defense posture, which is at the expense of its people’s welfare.
Dear President Obama, additionally, it is important to note that continued provocation of the North Korea, could one of these days, engender an accidental or miscalculated reaction by the North Korea, resulting in a horrendous holocaust not only involving the Korean peninsula but also its neighbors, Japan, Okinawa, Guam and even our mainland, as their nuclear weapons system is getting to be miniaturized and delivery technology becomes advanced.
There are other matters that North Koreans consider to be insulting to their national pride: accusations by the U.N. of human rights abuses; the recent comedy film depicting the assassination of their leader; and the launching of balloons by defectors from South Korea toward North Korea filled with malicious and derogatory notes about the North Korean leader. These incidents are beyond your control, however, as the commander in chief, you have control over military matters, particularly the joint military maneuvers between U.S. and South Korea, held so often and so close to their border. These military exercises need to be minimized or eliminated.
Dear President Obama, please remember that the Geun-hye Park administration of South Korea recently reneged on transferring and accepting the wartime operational control of its military force from the U.S., meaning that any South-North conflict, accidental or otherwise, will automatically involve the U.S. military, and you as the commander-in-chief of our country.
Dear President Obama, as a Nobel Peace Laureate, it behooves you to take steps to make peace, to normalize the relations between the U.S. and North Korea, which the North Korean leadership has repeatedly indicated it desires so ardently. This could end the 70 years of enmity between the two countries. In so doing, you can help to bring about peace, denuclearization, an economic upswing, and eventual re-unification of the two Koreas. Thank you.
Moon J. Pak M.D., Ph.D. is a physician who practices in the Detroit area. He is the senior vice-president of the Korean American National Coordinating Council (KANCC), the chair of the U.S.-DPRK Medical Science Exchange Committee (UDMEDEX), and the former chair of the Korean Americans for Change Political Action Committee (KACPAC)
(Korean Quarterly, Winter 2015, Vol.19, NUM.02)