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BTL: Korean Crisis Aggravated by Hostile Rhetoric


From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines


Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Jan. 13, 2002


Korean Crisis Aggravated by Hostile Rhetoric and U.S. Military Violence Against Civilians

Interview with Karin Lee, senior associate with the East Asia Policy Education Project at the Friends Committee on National Legislation conducted by Scott Harris

Listen in RealAudio:

While the Bush administration gathers its forces in the Persian Gulf to prosecute a war against Iraq, a growing crisis on the Korean peninsula has attracted international concern and attention. North Korea's recent admission that it had maintained a covert nuclear weapons program -- in violation of a 1994 accord with the U.S -- combined with open hostility from the White House, has escalated the crisis. North Korea's expulsion of U.N. weapons inspectors and the reopening of its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon, has provoked condemnation from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which warned that if Pyongyang does not change course, economic sanctions could be applied.

South Korean president Kim Dae-jung won a Nobel Prize, in part, for initiating his "sunshine" policy toward North Korea. The effort to ease tensions and normalize relations between the Koreas was supported by the Clinton administration, which signed a 1994 accord with the North to supply fuel oil and two light water nuclear reactors in exchange for Pyongyang's pledge to halt development of nuclear weapons. But upon taking office, President Bush withdrew support for normalization and remained inconsistent in his willingness to talk with the Communist North.

Despite the crisis, South Korea's president-elect Roh Moon-hyun speaks for many of his citizens when he advocates a more moderate approach in dealing with the North than Washington. Growing hostility to the U.S. in South Korea stems from the perceived arrogance of a superpower and violence committed against civilians by some of the 37,000 U.S. servicemen stationed there. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Karin Lee of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, who examines the roots of the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

Karin Lee: I think that North Korea looks at nuclear weapons the same way the U.S. claims to look at nuclear weapons, they're a deterrent. All they have to do is look at what's happening to Iraq and say, "Hmm, it's a really good idea for us to have nuclear weapons material….it makes our bargaining position much stronger, we've heard over and over again that the U.S. is not interested in invading and I think it's good that we continue to develop our nuclear weapons." So I'd say in that way they have stuck with that strategy since before the Bush administration.

I think the irony here with the Bush administration is it came in and they said, "We're not ready to talk," and then they said, "OK, we're ready to talk but only under these conditions," and then once North Korea said, "Yes, we're ready to talk," the Bush administration said, "We're not ready to talk" -- and then we heard this October about (North Korea's) new nuclear program, the Bush administration said, "We can't talk." (The Bush administration) has been really consistent with not trying to talk to North Korea. They just don't want to talk to North Korea, they want North Korea to just go away. There are people in Washington who are waiting for North Korea to collapse. They are still sticking to that scenario: "If only North Korea would just collapse, then we don't have to worry about it anymore."

Between The Lines: Why do you think North Korea has reacted the way it has? Do you think they are really steadfastly hoping to develop nuclear weapons or is this, as many analysts feel, a bargaining chip that they hope to give back at some point in exchange for fuel aid, food aid and other things they may desperately need?

Karin Lee: Just to step back for a minute and remind ourselves that North Korea, as much as it appears to be a monolith, actually is not a monolith. There's probably different people within the North Korean government working toward different ends. I definitely think they're trying to get the Bush administration's attention. They know, as well as everybody else knows, that with conventional weapons alone they are a threat to South Korea. They are just over the border from Seoul, which is the capital and largest city in South Korea, and millions would die in any kind of military conflict. South Korea doesn't want that, the U.S. doesn't want that, and Japan and China don't want that either. So I think that they are trying to get more attention. And I think there are probably some people in the North Korean government who just want the nuclear weapons.

But on a different tack, I want to say that North Korea has been suffering famine now probably for over than ten years. And there are still many people who, until recently, were receiving food from the U.N. agency, The World Food Program, receiving humanitarian assistance. That food aid has recently been cut off. But even though that food aid has stopped, other organizations that are called non-governmental organizations or small humanitarian organizations, have continued their assistance programs with North Korea. So on the one hand, we have all this rhetoric between North Korea and the U.S. government, but on the other hand you have ordinary U.S. citizens who are still going to North Korea, are still carrying out their medical relief programs, are still carrying out their agricultural rehabilitation programs and those North Koreans are saying in a very profound way, "We want to continue our relationship with the United States, we have trust in our U.S. partners." To me tha! t is a very hopeful sign that this is just a bargaining chip and that these people in the agricultural ministry in the North Korean government are saying, "OK, I'm going to let the political people and the foreign ministry people do whatever they want, but I know that for my country I need to continue a relationship with people in the United States."

Between The Lines: There's been growing hostility towards the United States in South Korea, some of it driven by the actions of a few of the 37,000 soldiers that are stationed there -- the deaths of two young girls who were run over by a U.S. military vehicle. But maybe you could give us a quick summary of why this is going on, why so many South Koreans are demonstrating in the streets against the U.S. presence in their nation and U.S. policy?

Karin Lee: There is some debate about how much we should see this as pure anti-Americanism in South Korea and how many of the people who are involved in these demonstrations are just saying, "Let's change the relationship with the U.S. We want U.S. troops to stay here, but we really have to change the relationship.

The U.S. fought on the South Korean side, of course, during the Korean War, but it's never been an easy relationship. Before the war, there were many civilian deaths of which the U.S. was either aware of or directly involved in.

And since the war, there has been ongoing, everyday friction, such as cultural insensitivities, but there's also been much more serious crimes where there's U.S. troops -- very often violence against women and violence against the women who serve the U.S. troops as prostitutes. So when two girls were run over this past summer -- two teenage girls were walking to a birthday party were run over -- by an armored vehicle, and that case was tried in a U.S. military court and the driver and navigator were exonerated, the Korean people just had enough of that. They were saying, "This type of crime needs to be tried in our courts and we need to be able to decide who's guilty." And it was that verdict that sparked off the current wave of demonstrations that rapidly grew until there were hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating all over the Korean peninsula in weekly demonstrations and candlelight vigils. One thing that's changed recently is that South Koreans for t! he first time since the Korean War have begun to see China as a closer ally than the United States. And that really transformed East Asia in a very significant way.

Contact the Friends Committee on National Legislation by calling (202) 547-6000 or visit their Web site at


Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, nationally syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines (, for the week ending Jan. 17, 2003.

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