Interviewed by Dae-Han Song
Jejun Joo is the Policy Chair of the Korea Alliance of Progressive Movements (KAPM) and the People’s Action Against the War and the Realization of Peace. The KAPM is a broad alliance of sectoral (workers, peasants, women, students, and a political party) and regional social movements in South Korea and a leading alliance for peace and reunification in the Korean Peninsula. The People’s Action Against the War and the Realization of Peace is a coalition of social and civil society movements recently created to deal with the current war crisis in the Korean Peninsula.
The interview is meant to shed some light on the current conditions on the Korean Peninsula regarding peace as well as offer analysis and perspective from some of Korea’s leading peace and reunification social movements.
Dae-Han Song: Can you provide some background to the current state of affairs?
Jejun Joo: Sure, there have basically been five agreements since 1994 between the United States and North Korea, all of which the US has consistently reneged on. I think this is the way that North Korea understands the situation: We are no longer interested in dialogue for dialogue’s sake or dialogue as a stalling tactic [on the part of the United States]. It is within this context that North Korea has realized its nuclear capability. We can see this as the backdrop to our current situation. Without any genuine dialogue between North Korea and the US, there is a high chance that tensions will continue and might even escalate.
Dae-Han Song: Do you think that ultimately the US will recognize that reality?
Jejun Joo: I think it ultimately has no choice but to do so. One important point I want to emphasize is the April 11th announcement at the House of Reps. hearing by Rep. Doug Lamborn of the leaked Defense Intelligence Agency report.[i] In it, the Defense Intelligence Agency acknowledged the possibility that North Korea possessed the ability to arm its ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.
Dae-Han Song: Can you talk about the chain of events that led to the current situation?
Jejun Joo: If we start from 1994,[ii] it will be too long and complicated, so let’s just start a little bit closer to today. Let’s start in 2009. In April 2009, North Korea launched a rocket to put a satellite into space. Then in May, it conduced its 2nd underground nuclear test. In response, former president Bill Clinton visited North Korea that August and came back with two American journalists that were being held in Pyongyang. This was followed by another vists by Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth in December. After the visit, Stephen Bosworth announced in a press conference in Seoul that North Korea would return to the 6 party talks. The six party negotiations concluded with the February 23 agreement. The mood for dialogue greatly improved.
In 2010, between February and March there were secret negotiations held between North Korea and the US in Berlin and in China. A peace regime was even brought up as a possible scenario. However, this was all shattered in March with the sinking of the Cheonan corvette in March 26th. The sinking of the Cheonan corvette is a great example of the US role in South Korea, and if we examine it closely we can discern its motivations in the Korean Peninsula.
Dae-Han Song: What do you mean?
Jejun Joo: South Korean authorities stated that the Cheonan corvette was sunk by North Korea. Only one other country in the world agreed with this conclusion: the United States. As a result of these conclusions, South Korea levied its May 24th sanctions against North Korea and the UN issued a presidential statement. However, if you take a close look at the UN statement, it does not state that the cause of the Cheonan corvette’s sinking was North Korea.[iii] It never mentions North Korea as the cause. In other words, the only two countries that accused North Korea of sinking the Cheonan corvette are South Korea and the US. Even Russia and China criticized this conclusion.[iv] Even now in South Korean society there are many doubts as to whether or not the Cheonan was sunk by North Korea. There are many inconsistencies and unanswered questions.[v] That is why Russia and China were unwilling to sign onto the final report. Only the US agreed to back the report. Why? Well, I believe that US interests in the Korean Peninsula can be found here.
The US strategy was as follows: with the Lee Administration’s May 24th measures halting inter-Korean economic cooperation in response to the sinking of the Cheonan corvette, the Lee Administration began to apply great pressure on North Korea. Furthermore, the USS George Washington aircraft carrier entered South Korea. As soon as the USS Washington entered South Korea, China strongly protested the move. This is because the USS Washington has a military operational radius of 1000 kilometers[vi] including a long-range surveillance radar. From the point of view of China, all of its strategic information about its North Sea fleet would have been exposed. As tensions rose, South Korea now also had to purchase stealth fighters and Apache helicopters from the large US military company Lockheed Martin. Through increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the US was able to sell weapons to South Korea[vii] and also finally announce its pivot to Asia strategy, ultimately meant to pressure China. Thus, we can see the reason why the US supported the South Korean government’s report accusing North Korea as attacking the Cheonan corvette.
The most important consequence of this final report was that it completely stopped the dialogue that had been happening since 2009. In this way, the US gained various benefits from increasing tensions in the Korean Peninsula. When tensions escalate, opposition towards and pressure against North Korea increases and then when the US takes actions to de-escalate, it appears as if it is taking positive steps towards easing tensions while further isolating North Korea.
Dae-Han Song: Can you briefly tell me about the Obama Administration’s policies towards North Korea?
Jejun Joo: Obama’s first term was about achieving denuclearization through face to face dialogue. In the beginning he had stated that the Bush Administration’s policy of pressuring North Korea had only driven it further into developing its nuclear weapons, and that his policy would be one of dialogue. However, as he became more embroiled with the Middle East crisis, he was unable to establish a real North Korea Policy. Ultimately, he adopted strategic patience. This strategic patience contained two components: isolating North Korea and refraining from dialogue. It is in reality a strategy of waiting for North Korea to collapse. In 2008, North Korean Chair of the National Defense Committee Kim Jong Il had a stroke, and the Obama Administration decided to wait until the Kim Government would collapse. This was the origin of strategic patience. However, strategic patience failed in 2009. There was the nuclear test and as I stated before, direct talks between North Korea and the US followed in 2010, 2011, and 2012 ending with the February 9 agreement. Through this process the Obama Administration gave up one of the elements of strategic patience by moving towards US-NK dialogue. This can be seen as Obama’s 2nd term strategy.
For his second term, Obama chose Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense and John Kerry as Secretary of State because they both were proponents of dialogue with North Korea. This did not mean that the Obama Administration gave up on its policy of isolating North Korea: provoking North Korea with its anti-North Korea policies facilitates North Korea’s greater international isolation. The US began to escalate tensions. It dispatched B2 fighters, with its countless bombs, the strategic B52 fighters, and a nuclear submarine to participate in the Key Resolve war games that took place from March 11 to 21 and then the following Foal Eagle war games. North Korea viewed these as provocations and stated that the US is not the only country that can launch a pre-emptive attack and threatened that a single order could launch a nuclear attack on the US mainland or its military bases in the South. In addition, similarly, the Park Administration ramped up its hostile rhetoric by stating the types of measures it would take if there was a hostage situation in the Gaesong Industrial Complex. Many viewed the Park Administration’s statements as being needlessly provocative towards North Korea.
Dae-Han Song: Before North Korea had stated that denuclearization was a possibility, yet now it has switched to a policy of wanting to be recognized as a nuclear power. What has changed?
Jejun Joo: As I’ve stated previously all of the five previous agreements have always been about establishing a peace regime, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, abolishment of hostile policy against North Korea, normalization of relations between North Korea and the US and through this process signing a peace treaty. After each of the negotiations, agreements were made, but then the US escalates tensions which collapses the agreement. Then, we have more negotiations followed again by the US escalating tensions. This is like a hamster running on a treadmill getting nowhere. North Korea looked at this and realized that they needed to extricate themselves out of a process leading nowhere. This was the reason why North Korea announced denuclearization was no longer possible. The nuclear test and the launching of the satellite can be understood within this new North Korean perspective. Negotiations will no longer be about denuclearization, but rather about halting further expansion of nuclear capabilities. In addition, now when the US turns up the heat on North Korea, North Korea too will be able to use inter-continental ballistic missiles and possibly its nuclear warheads to turn up the heat on the US.
Dae-Han Song: What does the US want? You said North Korea wants to normalize relations with the US and establish a peace treaty. Does the US not want this?
Jejun Joo: Strategic Patience is in reality an anti-North Korea policy: we will wait until you collapse. Like I stated before, tension in the Korean Peninsula provides benefits to the US. A peace treaty in the Korean Peninsula would not be able to provide such constant benefits. Thus, from the perspective of the US, a reasonable level of tension short of full scale war is beneficial. A resolution of tensions in the Korean Peninsula would mean disappearance of demand for their arms [by South Korea], and its Pivot to Asia strategy would no longer be possible. Checking China’s expansion may be the great underlying reason for the Pivot to Asia yet North Korea is used as its justification. That is why China is ultimately against this current state of tensions with North Korea.[viii]
Dae-Han Song: Just recently John Kerry stated that he was open to dialogue with North Korea. In addition, the Park Administration stated the same. However, North Korea called the proposals for talks “empty shells” and rejected the proposals. Can you talk about Kerry and Park’s proposals? Why did North Korea reject?
Jejun Joo: First of all, John Kerry and the Park Administration stated that the talks would have to involve denuclearization. Like I stated before, a dialogue with denuclearization in mind, from North Korea’s current point of view is not possible. North Korea stated that they will no longer denuclearize. Without the US accepting very concretely some of the demands of North Korea, such as abolishment of its anti-North Korea policy, the normalization of relations between North Korea and the US, and the establishment of peace regime negotiations dialogue will not be possible. We are talking about meeting some very strategic demands. There needs to be a promise that a process will be established for these. Similarly, North Korea also rejected Park’s offers for talk for the same reason.
However, ultimately time is on North Korea’s side. They can keep expanding and advancing their nuclear program. They will keep on enriching uranium, producing plutonium in large quantities, and upgrading and testing its missile technology.
Dae-Han Song: What is the path to peace?
Jejun Joo: There is only one way: peace dialogue between the US and North Korea, as I’ve stated again and again. North Korea has been showing its willingness to move towards a peace treaty. The armistice agreement must be turned into a peace treaty. Without that, the tensions on the Korean peninsula will persist. The peace process must involve US-North Korea dialogue.
Dae-Han Song: This is an important year with the 60th anniversary of the cease-fire. Can you talk briefly about some of the events planned by the Anti-War and Pro-Peace People’s Action?
Jejun Joo: First of all, in order to demand the de-escalation of tensions through dialogue, we are doing a signature collecting campaign calling for a peace treaty. We are also planning peace envoys to the US to deliver these signatures to the White House. In July, we planned an international march from Gangjeong village[ix] to Imjingak[x] calling for peace. We also held an international forum of academics and experts on the issue of peace in the Korean Peninsula. In order to strengthen international solidarity, we will have a discussion among activists from around the world on how to realize peace in the Korean Peninsula. The path towards a peace treaty won’t be an easy one. It will take some time including more moments of increased tensions. Slowly, we will build greater solidarity with peace organizations around the world in our path towards realizing peace.
[ii] The 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea marked the first agreement between both countries.
[v] The biggest unanswered question is how a North Korean submarine had entered and left undetected. When the Cheonan sunk, the US and South Korea were executing war military exercises in the West Sea (also referred to as the Yellow Sea), The Cheonan corvette was involved in these war games and its role was to detect submarines. Let’s take a closer look at the results of the investigation: a North Korea submarine carrying two 1.5 ton torpedoes went all the way around the Northern Limit Line…towards the three South Korean and US Aegis boats (Aegis boats are equipped with anti-submarine radar technology) and the Cheonan corvette which were participating in the annual military exercises in the West Sea. The report alleges that during this whole time as the North Korean submarine went around the NLL, it had remained undetected…the Aegis warships can detect substances 30 centimeters big from a distance of a thousand kilometers. It does not make sense that the US and South Korean Aegis ships surrounding the Cheonan corvette, which were equipped with the latest anti-submarine technology, would have been incapable of detecting a North Korean submarine at any point before or after the attack, especially as they were in the middle of military exercises. It also does not make sense that the Cheonan corvette with its anti-submarine functions would not have been able to detect the North Korean submarine. There are many other unanswered questions and inconsistencies.
[vi] A military operational radius implies that within this radius they can launch missiles and conduct surveillance.
[vii] “South Korea said on Wednesday it would buy attack helicopters worth 1.8 trillion won ($1.6 billion) from Boeing Co. to improve its ability to respond to threats from North Korea.”
[viii] With the new Xi Jinping government, China’s interests may appear to conflict with North Korea’s, yet ultimately as tensions escalate in Northeast Asia both sides’ interests cannot but converge. If tensions continue or escalate on the Korean Peninsula, it allows the US to increase its military presence and power in the region. Furthermore, even Japan, after North Korea’s 3rd nuclear test, is discussing nuclear armament. This is very distressing for China. Strategically, China does not want a continuation of tension.
[ix] A village in an island a few hundred miles from China, at the southernmost tip of the Korean Peninsula, where a naval base, which many believe will be used by the US military, is being built.
[x] Imjingak is directly south of the DMZ, the line that divides North and South Korea.