A group of panelists debated whether North Korea is actually a threat to East Asian stability at an event that packed the Kennedy School of Government’s (KSG) ARCO Forum last night.
The panel discussion, entitled “North Korea: An Axis of Evil?” came three months after President George W. Bush called North Korea an “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address in January.
KSG Dean Joseph S. Nye moderated the conversation as it ranged from the long-range survival of the North Korean regime to America’s current diplomatic strategy in the region.
“Everyone can think of ways to improve North Korea,” said Ashton Carter, Ford Foundation professor of science and international affairs and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, “but no one can think of ways to improve the situation.”
The panelists agreed that North Korea’s communist regime poses a potential threat to the stability of East Asia, a region which they said has a broad impact on America’s national interests and the durability of any international coalition led by Bush.
Members of the panel discussed how best to move forward from the current situation—which they described as a stalement with a divided peninsula, persistent tension, and the potential for escalation.
Sung Chul Yang, the South Korean ambassador to the United States, highlighted the recent success of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s sunshine policy.
Under the sunshine policy, Yang said thousands of families torn apart by the military division between the North and South have been reunited in the past few years.
Yang said movements like this one can pave the way for a “gradual” process towards reconciliation.
General John H. Tilelli, Jr., who served as the commander in chief of the U.N. Command, Combined Forces Command, and U.S. Forces in Korea from 1996 to 2000, said the sunshine policy has a potential long-term weakness.
“What is the regime’s primary responsibility?” he asked. “Preservation. How far can a regime open before there is too much light?”
Carter told the audience that 37,000 American troops are currently stationed on the demilitarized zone (DMZ), ordered to protect South Korea from a surprise military attack.
Much of the discussion and question-and-answer period focused on the ability of the North Korean regime to survive with a troubled economy and military rule and the question of whether North Korea would become a nuclear threat.
To answer the nuclear question, Nye and Carter, formerly colleagues in the Department of Defense, pointed to the most recent policy review conducted in 1999, which called for “complete and verifiable assurances that [North Korea] does not have a nuclear weapons program.”
They said steps toward reconciliation can become viable only after North Korea continues its non-proliferation commitments.
At the end of the panel, the speakers returned to the original question of whether North Korea is actually an “axis of evil.”
Most panelists said Bush’s rhetorical spin was likely designed to shift public attitudes and may have overshadowed significant steps being made on a smaller, local scale.