Kerry's Remarks on Korean Policy and Reunification Questioned

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Senator John F. Kerry has taken issue with the Bush administration's handling of the North Korean nuclear crisis, but a leading Korean affairs analyst Thursday questioned some of Kerry's positions, saying he appeared to be criticizing President Bush "for criticism's sake."

In recent days, Kerry has again faulted Bush's refusal to hold direct talks with Pyongyang, while also accusing him of not pressuring the Stalinist state on the nuclear issue.

As president, Kerry said, he would hold bilateral discussions on a broad agenda that could even include reunification of the peninsula, which has been divided since the end of World War II.

Dong-bok Lee, a Seoul-based analyst and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, questioned Kerry's remarks, and especially his stated willingness to discuss with the North Koreans the issue of reunification.

Kerry was quoted Wednesday as telling AP Radio in Florida that the Bush administration had "failed to negotiate and failed to pressure" Pyongyang on its attempts to acquire nuclear weapons.

As president, Kerry said, he would hold direct, bilateral talks with the North Koreans, as the Clinton administration did, because that had created a process - albeit a flawed one - for accountability and set up systems to monitor the North's nuclear facilities.

In 1994, the Clinton administration negotiated the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to mothball its nuclear complex at Yongbyon and admit U.N. inspectors and surveillance cameras to monitor the freeze, in return for U.S. aid and the provision of alternative energy supplies.

The deal broke down after the State Department in October 2002 confronted Pyongyang with evidence that it had violated the agreement by carrying out a covert uranium-enrichment project. The North Koreans retaliated by expelling the inspectors, disabling the cameras, and resuming activities at the reactor and associated reprocessing plant.

The U.S. has refused to accede to Pyongyang's demands for bilateral talks, holding out for multilateral discussions also involving China, Russia, South Korea and Japan. Two rounds of these six-party talks have been held, without a breakthrough.

Kerry accused the administration of "not having real discussions," and said the world was less safe today because those monitoring mechanisms at Yongbyon were gone and the North Koreans were suspected of building more bombs.

In another interview last Friday, Kerry told the Washington Post he would, as president, immediately open direct negotiations with North Korea. And he would be willing to discuss a broad agenda, including reducing U.S. troop levels and even the reunification of the two Koreas.

The comments raised eyebrows in Seoul, where the conservative Chosun Ilbo daily said in an editorial that the Kerry approach "would allow North Korea to get much closer to its long-cherished dream of taking the initiative in discussing matters relating to the Korean peninsula."

The paper acknowledged that the South Korean government itself supported the idea of direct U.S.-North Korean talks. But it cautioned that South Korea's alliance with the U.S. would be affected by any changes in the Pyongyang-Washington relationship.

"If the United States holds a summit meeting with North Korea to talk about peace treaties and unification issues without a strong Korea-U.S. alliance as its foundation, no doubt, South Korea could lose its place as an ally, making it hard to avoid fundamental changes in terms of political power on the Korean peninsula," it said.

Chosun opined that the issue of unification was "not as simple as what naive social activists, political leftists, or youths think."


Lee, the CSIS analyst, said Kerry's remarks on reunification sounded "rather far-fetched," adding that many in South Korea would question the idea of a U.S. government discussing reunification directly with the North.

"This issue doesn't belong with the United States," he said in a phone interview. "It belongs with the two Koreas."

"Although Kerry [as president] may be able to do certain things as an ally of South Korea, I don't think he has any legitimate authority to discuss with North Korea the issue of reunification," he said.

Lee, a former lawmaker and advisor to the South Korean prime minister and intelligence chief, said the question of reunification was open to varying interpretations in South Korea.

For conservatives, only reunification under the aegis of the Republic of Korea would be acceptable, once "the communist experiment in North Korea" was dead.

When President Roh Moo-hyun visited Washington a year ago, he expressed the view that reunification following the collapse of the Kim Jong-il regime would be too costly for South Korea to cope with. He cited the example of the reunification of East and West Germany after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In Lee's view, what Roh should have said was that South Korea could not turn its back on its brethren in the North irrespective of the financial cost - and appeal for the U.S. to help bear the burden.

On the subject of holding talks with North Korea on the nuclear issue, Lee argued that Kerry's approach did not seem to differ significantly from the current administration.

Kerry said that he would confront North Korea over its nuclear program. But Bush had done just that, said Lee, notably through the six-party talks.

"Fundamentally, he seems to be criticizing Bush for criticism's sake."

During the Democratic primary race earlier this year, North Korea's official KCNA agency approvingly cited Kerry's criticism of Bush's refusal to hold direct dialogue with Pyongyang.

A Financial Times report at the time said North Korea seemed to hope victory for Kerry in November would result in a softer U.S. stance towards its nuclear program.

The reports prompted House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to issue a statement deriding what he called Kerry's "ingenious international campaign for the White House."

See earlier story:
Rogue Governments Support Kerry, Republican Leader Notes (Mar. 09, 2004)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow