by Robert M. Hathaway

Ambassador Robert Gallucci, Dean, Georgetown School of Foreign Service
Lho Kyong Soo, Seoul National University
David Brown, Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies
William Taylor, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Jong Park, U.S. Federal Reserve Board
Marcus Noland, Institute for International Economics
Donald Cameron, Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays, and Handler
Don Oberdorfer, Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies

More than one hundred Korea-watchers gathered at the Wilson Center on March 23 to peer into the future of U.S. relations with ally South Korea and adversary North Korea. A wide-ranging discussion explored issues as diverse as South Korean domestic politics, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" toward North Korea, possible changes in U.S. force posture on the Korean peninsula, the nature of the military threat posed by North Korea, U.S. trade policy, and South Korea's efforts to regain its economic stability following the Asian economic crisis of the past two and a half years.

Don Oberdorfer, veteran diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post and journalist-in-residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, closed the morning's proceedings with a luncheon address in which he painted vivid word portraits of five senior Koreans—two from the South, including Kim Dae Jung, and three from the North—with whom he has had frequent contact over the years. On the basis of these and similar contacts, Oberdorfer concluded, "these two peoples could get along" if a way can be found to get beyond the bitter legacy of the past fifty years.

Robert Gallucci, who negotiated the 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework, opened the conference by emphasizing the difficulty of coordinating policies among allies—in this case, the United States, South Korea, and Japan. There is no such thing as too much consultation with allies, he observed. Referring to the recommendation of the recent Perry report against buying North Korea's cooperation, Gallucci remarked that this was nice advice in the abstract but ignored the reality that the United States seeks to persuade North Korea to avoid actions—reprocessing nuclear fuel and developing, deploying, and exporting ballistic missiles—that under international law are perfectly legal under certain conditions. Inducements, Gallucci observed, are an integral aspect of engagement.

The morning's first panel focused on penisular security issues. Lho Kyong Soo presented a skeptical analysis of Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" and claimed that dissatisfaction is growing in the South over the one-sided nature of the policy. SAIS's David Brown judged that U.S.-South Korean relations are stronger today than at any time since the end of the Korean War, but devoted most of his remarks to exploring four issues—North Korean ballistic missiles, Pyongyang's nuclear program, China, and Seoul's economic restructuring—that could make a smooth functioning of the U.S.-ROK relationship more problematic in the future. William Taylor took issue with Lho's skeptical assessment of President Kim's sunshine policy, declaring that there exists no safe, sane alternative to this approach. Taylor warned of a period of maximum danger from the North between now and 2007, when U.S. missile defenses will be operative, and predicted substantial changes in the U.S.-ROK military relationship before then, including a pullback of some of the 37,000 U.S. troops now stationed in South Korea.

Taylor's call for a "virtual summit" between the South and North Korean presidents sparked considerable audience interest and was one of several interesting and provocative suggestions offered by conference participants.

Korea's economic recovery from the regional crisis that struck in 1997 and U.S.-South Korean economic frictions furnished the topic of the morning's second panel. Marcus Noland argued that the failures of South Korea's pre-1997 financial system made a crisis inevitable, that the International Monetary Fund then made the problems that became apparent in 1997 worse, and that the ongoing recovery in South Korea is in part illusory. Trade lawyer Donald Cameron observed that overall U.S.-Korean trade relations are reasonably good, but denounced the U.S. reliance on Sec. 301 dispute mechanisms and complained that U.S. trade policy is too heavily influenced by U.S. industry. Jong Park of the Federal Reserve Board agreed with Noland's analysis that South Korea's indigenous shortcomings explain why the country was hit so hard by the Asian financial crisis and singled out the inadequacies of the financial sector, especially the practice of permitting political rather than economic considerations to dictate lending, as a major problem that has not yet been resolved.

In his luncheon remarks at the conclusion of the conference, Oberdorfer added personality and nuance to senior North and South Korean officials most Americans know only as names in press reports. Oberdorfer found Kim Dae Jung "a most remarkable man" highly knowledgeable about the outside world and absolutely committed to drawing North Korea into an expended web of international contacts. Oberdorfer also singled out Kim's efforts to regularize relations with Japan as "an historically important achievement—if it sticks."

Notable conference participants included Desaix Anderson, executive-director of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), South Korean Ambassador Hong Koo Lee, representatives from the embassies of South Korea, Singapore, China, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, and Cambodia, and officials from U.S. Departments of State, Defense, and Energy.

The speakers and audience offered a wide divergence of ideas on many of the central policy issues facing the United States—how many American troops need be based in the Far East, for instance. Most participants, however, appeared to agree that the Korean peninsula had passed through an unusually dangerous period in the mid-1990s, and that with luck and skillful statesmanship, there is good reason to believe that the next few years might witness a gradual easing of tensions on the peninsula.

This conference was jointly organized and run by the Wilson Center's Asia Program, Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, and Georgetown's McDonough School of Business.