Transcript

President Bush Visits South Korea

David C. Kang
Co-author of "Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies"/Dartmouth College
Friday, November 18, 2005; 12:00 PM

David C. Kang , co-author of "Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies," and an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, was online Friday, Nov. 18, at noon ET to discuss President Bush 's visit to South Korea as part of his weeklong trip to four Asian nations.

The transcript follows.

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Arlington, Va.: In addition to the bird flu and other current issues, how much will Bush focus on the problem of nuclear proliferation? Even though this is a long term problem it seems critical enough that it would be high on the agenda in this visit. Any concrete progress or plans from South Korean leaders and Bush?

David C. Kang: Proliferation is high on Bush's agenda. Regarding North Korea, that is clearly the administration's highest priority, and all other concerns (human rights in North Korea, economic reforms, etc.) are a distant second. Bush will mention human rights, for example, but again this is more to placate domestic constituents (particularly Congress) than it is a major policy priority.

The question, of course, is what type of policy to take regarding proliferation. Both South Korea and China see the North Korean nuclear problem as part of a larger issue of North Korean economic reform and opening. The Bush administration tends to see these as separate issues, and wants to concentrate more on nuclear proliferation measures without addressing economic measures.

Bush and South Korean president Roh agreed that they do not want North Korea to be nuclear, but they still disagree about the best path to pursue. Hu and Bush will most likely conclude the same thing: agreement over the goal, differences over the policy toward the North.

Bush and Roh did mention the possibility of setting up a separate forum to discuss peace issues, which if implemented, may be one way to get around the current deadlock, although we will have to wait and see whether that actually comes to pass.

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Roanoke Rapids, N.C.: Do you believe it is appropriate from the diplomatic view point for the president of the USA to comment about the need for democracy in China while been a guest of Japan?

David C. Kang: My own sense is that Bush is making this type of comment first because he firmly believes in democracy as a principle, and secondly more for domestic audiences here in the United States. There is a long-running debate in Washington about how to treat China, and right now in Washington that debate is between those who see China as a threat, and those that see China as a potential threat. That is, the range of opinion in DC is fairly limited. This is not the same as the wider belief, where our economies and businesses are continuing to bind closer together, and we are, for all practical purposes, engaged deeply with China.

By making gestures such as going to church in China and mentioning democracy, he can satisfy domestic constituents, while in China he focuses on nuclear proliferation in North Korea and other economic and political issues.

In this, Bush is merely reflecting the contending (and contentious) opinions in DC.

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Bethesda, Md.:

It's pretty clear now that in 2001 the oil companies discussed with Mr. Cheney the Administration's planned invasion of the planet's second largest oil reserves. What resources does the Korean peninsula hold, and which industries will be pushing that war from behind the scenes? Thanks for the chat.

David C. Kang: The Korean peninsula is fairly resource-poor, aside from some minerals in the Northern half. Its significance lies in its geography -- it shares land borders with Russia and China, and is fifty miles from Japan by sea. This makes it strategically important, because access between the larger countries goes through Korea.

On the positive side, if there is progress in North-South relations, it would be possible for trade, tourism, and transport to get much more quickly between China and Japan through Korea than it has been for the past fifty years. On the negative side, this makes Korea potentially dangerous to any of those other countries if Korea is hostile.

Your larger question, though, is who on the U.S. side might push for war on the peninsula. My own sense is that there is widespread agreement that such a war would be far too costly to the U.S., and particularly to South and North Korea, that it is not a realistic option. Were we to attempt a preemptive strike against North Korea's nuclear facilities, there is the real possibility that the North would respond by devastating South Korea's capital with its conventional artillery, and that the US and China could end up nose to nose, and potentially in a shooting war. Since the potential costs are so high, all sides (rhetoric aside) tend to move very cautiously on the peninsula.

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Washington, D.C.: Why Mongolia? It seems like a strategically unusual place for a President to visit.

David C. Kang: Mongolia is a fairly "robust" democracy -- its last elections were held this year in May, and it is moving forward with electoral reform and other privatization and economic reforms. Given the president's focus on supporting and creating democracy around the globe, his visit is intended to highlight the strides Mongolia has made.

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Annapolis, Md.: How much access to information do North Koreans have? I am under the impression that they receive virtually no news from the outside world. What do they know of Bush's visit to South Korea? What is their impression of him?

David C. Kang: The average North Korean has extremely limited access to outside information. There is no free press or radio/TV in the north, and so any information they get is either from the highly biased state-run news agencies, or it is in the form of "gossip" spread by North Koreans who have managed to smuggle in a cell phone (for example) from China and gain "word of mouth" information from outside.

Aside from that, they have really no other sources of information.

As a result, the North Koreans know almost nothing about Bush's trip to South Korea, and if they do, it is highly distorted information.

One way in which this is slowly changing is the increased number of visitors from South Korea who are going North. Last year over 200,000 South Koreans visited North Korea, either to work in the Kaesong industrial zone which is just over the border, or to visit Mt. Kumgang on the east coast. However, their access to North Koreans is also severely limited, and the North Koreans outside of these two highly controlled areas hear nothing but gossip.

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Alexandria, Va.: How does Bush's visit to China impact the U.S.'s relationship with Taiwan? If China does not recognize Taiwan, are they simply not bringing up the fact that the U.S. has a close relationship with them for the sake of diplomacy?

David C. Kang: The US-Taiwan-China relationship is extraordinarily complex for any president. The United States has given two somewhat conflicting messages to China and Taiwan. Last December 2004, Colin Powell went to Taipei to dampen Chen Shui-bien's rhetoric about declaring independence. At the same time, Taiwan is a vibrant example of both successful democratic transition and economic development. The U.S. is in a difficult situation: we do not want to encourage Taiwan to declare independence, because the most likely result is that we end up in war with China. However, it will be very difficult for any US president to abandon Taiwan completely, given that it is a democratic, capitalist society.

So the US walks a thin line: between supporting Taiwan and then encouraging it not to declare independence.

Most likely, the best result Bush can hope for is the status quo: Taiwan does not declare independence, but China takes no moves to pressure or coerce Taiwan. There is no easy answer to this issue, and so all sides have essentially tried to put the issue off, hoping that time will provide some answers.

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Virginia Beach, Va.: Has South Korea expressed a desire for a reduction in troops like Japan did re: Okinawa? Is friction with the population separate from the government's desire to have them near the DMZ?

David C. Kang: South Korea has asked that US troops be redeployed outside of the capital, and for some aspects of operational control to be returned to the South Korean military. But overt troops reductions have come from the US side, not the South Korean side.

The friction over the US base in Yongsan (downtown Seoul) arose simply because when the base was founded in the 1950s, Yongsan was far outside of the city. With development, that base is now in central Seoul, and inevitable frictions arose. So the US and the ROK agreed to move those troops outside the capital. Actually, given the sensitivities involved, these negotiations between the US and South Korea were quite successful, calm, and substantive.

The larger question is over the US-ROK alliance in general. The ROK is often seen as an "ungrateful" ally -- however, the ROK has the largest number of troops in Iraq after the US and UK (4,000). Both sides want to keep the relationship and the alliance close, but the difficulties have arisen in a different strategic focus toward North Korea. The South Korean public overwhelmingly supports an economic engagement strategy toward the North -- opinion polls regularly show 60-70% support for that strategy. The US wants to take a more coercive policy to the North, cutting off aid and other sources of economic access to the outside world, and potentially even more hardline measures. The South Koreans worry about North Korean weakness: economic collapse or implosion could unleash waves of refugees and be a massive economic burden for South Korea. The US worries more about North Korean strength: its nuclear weapons program. These differences have led to friction in the alliance, despite both sides desire for smooth relations.

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Anonymous: Has China been at all helpful in seeking solutions to the nuclear issue with North Korea? It would seem to me that China -- regardless of their long-relationship to the Kim regime -- would want another nuclear power in the region, especially one subject to a certain level of economic instability. In short, I've been surprised that they haven't been more active in pressuring North Korea to de-nuke. Can our discomfiture over North Korea be a sufficient counterbalance to whatever concerns they have about a nuclear North?

David C. Kang: In the US, the biggest misperception is that China shares the same goals as the US with regard to North Korea. In my previous post I talked about differences in South Korean and US perspectives on the North Korean issue. China's views are very similar to those of South Korea.

We in the US think that China will of course pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. However, both China and South Korea see the US as the potentially destabilizing power in the region, not North Korea. That is, they worry that too much pressure by the US could either result in a devastating war, or an economic collapse of North Korea. They also tend to find more credible the North's argument that fears of the US are the cause of its programs.

China sees the best path to resolving the nuclear issue as one of economic engagement. They see North Korea making hesitant but clear strides towards economic reform and opening, and they -- like South Korea -- want to encourage moves down that path. China also wants to make sure that the US does not get too adventurous and decide to start another war on the peninsula. The Chinese have also asked the US to take more clear steps towards resolving the North's fears and concerns.

Thus, in many ways it has been China's leadership, not that of the US, that has resulted in the limited progress that has been made on the issue.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Did Bush address China's human rights issues during this visit?

David C. Kang: He has made oblique references on that issue, again for domestic reasons. Rice specifically mentioned China as one of 8 worst violators of religious liberties. The US is also making noise about North Korean human rights violations.

One thing to note, however, is that while the rhetoric is all well and good, human rights are not the top priority of the administration.

Given the choice between solving the nuclear issue in North Korea and pushing for better human rights, hands down Bush would take the nuclear deal. In our China policy, we have occasionally made human rights and issue, but it generally takes back seat to economic issues and larger political issues. Which doesn't mean that Bush is necessarily insincere, but we should take with a grain of salt these pronouncements, they're much more for consumption back in the US than they are major policy goals. Bush cares about these, but not at the expense of political/economic issues.

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David C. Kang: As a way of wrapping up, I'll close with a few general thoughts about this trip.

My overall take is that Bush's trip is very important for US policy, because we are losing influence and credibility around the region.

Understandably distracted by the Middle East, the United States has lost its traditional clout and is now playing catch-up in East Asia.

At the same time, East Asian countries have rapidly moved ahead with economic and regional integration. Bush's trip can strengthen American commitment to the region as a whole by underscoring American interests in an economically open and politically stable Asia.

It is important whether Bush's trip succeeds or not: virtually none of the major non-traditional security threats facing the US and its friends -- piracy, illegal trafficking in narcotics and people, terrorism, disease, and pollution -- can be solved without cooperation from Asia. Furthermore, we need Chinese savings to finance our huge currency account and budget deficits until both sides can slowly readjust.

However, to see the rise of East Asian regional integration and cooperation with China in competitive terms between the United States and China would be a mistake. All the East Asian states -- including China -- want the U.S. to be involved. Indeed, China is trying to buy into the global system that is dominated by the U.S., not challenging it. Furthermore, the U.S. remains an important economic and political presence in the region. However, sporadic U.S. attention will not substitute as leadership, and U.S. foreign policy will either promote stability or hinder it.

A clear U.S. policy toward East Asia should contain three elements: first, George Bush should embrace the region s emerging integration by proposing a US-ASEAN summit, signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, listening more to Asian needs, and lowering trade barriers and encouraging economic cooperation perhaps through expanded free-trade areas in the region. Second, Bush should signal a desire to have stable relations with China, further encouraging China s responsible participation in regional affairs. Finally, the United States needs to present a workable, realistic vision for how the U.S. will modify and modernize its Cold War military alliances with Japan and South Korea to deal with the lack of an obvious military threat and the changed economic, political, and cultural realities in the region.

What Bush should not do is engage in divisive "for us/against us" rhetoric, which will find few backers in Asia. Indeed, other Asian states have made very clear they do not want to choose between the U.S. and China.

That's my overall take on this trip. Thanks to everyone for participating, I've enjoyed it very much and I hope my answers were illuminating.

DK

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