Report by Robert M. Hathaway

Speakers: Don Oberdorfer, author, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History; Wendy Sherman, The Albright Group, and former North Korea Policy Coordinator; Stephen Bosworth, Dean, The Fletcher School, and former U.S. ambassador to South Korea

A year ago, North Korea's engagement with the outside world featured such dramatic developments as the first ever South-North summit meeting, the first ever visit to Washington by a senior North Korean leader, and the first ever trip to North Korea by an American secretary of state. The year ended with serious consideration of a visit to Pyongyang by the American president. Although President Clinton eventually decided that the timing for such an historic journey was not yet right, the year ended all the same with the sense that an important corner had been turned in international efforts to draw the reclusive "hermit kingdom" into deeper contact with the rest of the world.

Nonetheless, the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea remains the most heavily fortified border in the world, and the Korean peninsula heads almost everyone's list of potential crisis spots around the world.

On Dec. 7, 2001, the Asia Program and the Division of International Studies sponsored a book launch for the updated edition of Don Oberdorfer's highly praised The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (1997, 2001). In his remarks, Oberdorfer emphasized the dramatic events of 2000, which, he observed, had the potential to transform Big Power relationships in Northeast Asia and stabilize the Korean peninsula. "Potential" is the correct word, he added, because a year later, it is by no means certain that that potential will be realized. Developments on the peninsula over the past twelve months, he noted, have "slowed to a crawl or even . . . slipped back." This more cautious assessment, delivered in December 2001, stands in marked contrast to the far more hopeful tone of the new chapter dealing with 2000, written early this year for the updated edition of Oberdorfer's book.

Wendy Sherman and Stephen Bosworth, both key U.S. diplomats in the Clinton administration, offered commentary and additional views following Oberdorfer's presentation. Sherman made an argument for a more vigorous U.S. engagement with North Korea. The United States cannot leave a vacuum, she warned, as it did in Afghanistan in the 1980s after the Soviet Union withdrew. Washington and Pyongyang should each take a step toward the other to restart the process of engagement.

Bosworth, while not disagreeing with the guarded assessment of the current situation offered by the other two speakers, emphasized that there is "a certain inevitability" to Korea's future; the two countries are on an "irreversible course" that will eventually lead to reconciliation and some form of peaceful coexistence.

This event brought together two of America's senior Korean policymakers from the previous administration with the author of perhaps the best book on Korean developments over the past decade. The audience was also liberally sprinkled with people possessing wide experience in this area, sparking a fruitful dialogue after the prepared presentations.