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U.S. Talks with North Korea 'Set Up to Fail'
[Interview] John Feffer, co-director of 'Foreign Policy in Focus'
Emanuel Pastreich (internews)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2006-07-20 14:26 (KST)   
John Feffer
John Feffer took time out of his busy schedule to meet with me at the conference room of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C., July 8. He started work just last month as the co-director of the insightful on-line journal Foreign Policy in Focus, in addition to his work as Director of the Global Affairs Program at the International Relations Center.

Although John has written widely on social, political and economic issues, he has focused on the Korean Peninsula of late, producing some of the most thoughtful considerations of the social, economic, political and cultural forces shaping underlying the transformation of both North and South.

John is a careful speaker who manages to insert a bit of humor into almost every sentence. He listens with great attention to every question and is never dismissive of the concerns of others. He has a rare talent for both a diplomatic response and a blunt description of the reality of things.


What led you to consider Korea in your writings? Why was Korea compelling?

I was first led to the study of North Korea because of my interest in communist systems. I studied in Moscow in 1985 and lived in Poland in 1989, which gave me a first-hand opportunity to witness first the Gorbachev reforms and then the Solidarity-led transformations. I was curious why the North Korean state did not collapse in 1989 or later during the food crisis of the mid-1990s. This curiosity led me to conduct further research and, eventually, to take several trips to North Korea.

When I first traveled to South Korea in 1998, I discovered a second compelling reason to pay close attention to the Korean peninsula: the vibrancy of South Korean civil society. For three years I worked closely with South Korean NGOs -- in Seoul, Kwangju, Taegu -- and was astounded by their commitment, political acuity, and ferocious hard work.

Finally, I was surprised to discover that relatively little is known about the two Koreas in the United States -- at least relative to China or Japan. As a writer, I find such relative ignorance very compelling. I wanted to know why Americans know so little about Korea and how this ignorance has influenced our policies.

What do you consider to be the primary problem in U.S. relations with North Korea?

The primary problem is that the current U.S. administration fundamentally doesn't want an agreement with North Korea. The Bush administration considers the 1994 Agreed Framework to have been a flawed agreement. It doesn't want to be saddled with a similar agreement, for if it did sign one, it would then be open to charges of "appeasing" Pyongyang. The Vice President has summed up the approach as: "We don't negotiate with evil, we defeat evil."

So although the State Department has tried to negotiate with Pyongyang, it has been set up to fail by administration hardliners. It's impossible to foresee any movement forward in U.S.-North Korean relations until the administration adopts a pragmatic approach to negotiating with Pyongyang.

We also see friction with South Korea. Why is that?

Short biography of John Feffer

John Feffer serves as co-director of the on-line think tank Foreign Policy In Focus and director of Global Affairs at the International Relations Center. He is the author of several books, including North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis and Shock Waves: Eastern Europe after the Revolutions.

For the last 20 years, he has written on a range of topics from Russian economy and Korean literature to U.S. food policy and the global economy. His shorter essays have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, The Progressive, Salon, Newsday and The American Prospect. He has also edited several books, including the FPIF collection Power Trip and The Future of U.S.-Korean Relations from Routledge.

Before joining IRC, Feffer was a Writing Fellow at Provisions Library in Washington, DC and a PanTech fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University. Feffer studied in England and Russia, lived in Poland and Japan, and traveled widely throughout Europe and Asia.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration wants to have a more equal partnership with the United States. It has also continued Kim Dae-jung's engagement policy toward the North. The Bush administration has not taken kindly to either policy. In the first case, the U.S. government wants South Korea to fall in line on the military policy of "strategic flexibility," which translates in Korean terms into Seoul entering on Washington's side against Beijing. The United States cooperates with China on many different issues, and South Korea sensibly wants to maintain open channels with China as well.

In terms of the second issue, engaging the North, many in the Bush administration view any policies that might help rehabilitate the North Korean economy as extending a lifeline to the Kim Jong Il regime. There are some in Washington who believe that were it not for Beijing and Seoul, the Kim Jong Il government would have collapsed already. As such, the Bush administration is unenthusiastic about the Gaeseong project, has criticized the bilateral humanitarian aid, and would prefer that Seoul take a harder line on the human rights issue.

You have suggested in your writings that there is a major gap between North Korea as it is described in the media and the reality of what is going on there. Why has such a gap emerged?

The major reason for the problems in the portrayal of North Korea in the mainstream media is that journalists rarely have a chance to visit North Korea. When they do, they can't act like journalists. They can't travel freely and they can't interview anyone they want.

Because of these restrictions, journalists are dependent on second-hand information from government sources and sometimes from defectors.

A second reason for misperceptions in the media is that the people doing the most interesting work concerning North Korea won't talk about it because media attention might endanger their projects. Journalists tend to be, by the nature of their work, rather irresponsible. They think about getting a story, not about the possible ramifications of their story for the people involved. So, people engaged in careful economic, social, and cultural projects involving North Korea won't talk to journalists.

A third reason for misperceptions is the North Korean government itself. The North Korean government finds itself in a very weak position geopolitically. But they manage to use secrecy and opacity to their advantage.

Do they or do they not have nuclear weapons? We can't be sure. What is the exact range of their missiles? We don't know. How much does the military support the economic reforms? Good question.

By keeping the outside world guessing, the North Korean government can appear to be stronger and more unified than it really is.

A fourth reason for misperceptions is the tendency of journalists to unconsciously follow their own government's foreign policy perspective. U.S. journalists always make a big deal about their objectivity. But they rarely challenge certain assumptions about U.S. national security. They don't spend much time thinking about the nuclear arsenal that the United States maintains or the dominant market share U.S. arms exports enjoy. We find a similar tendency with coverage of North Korea. Only when the Clinton administration began to pursue a genuine engagement policy with North Korea in 1999-2000 did the U.S. press suddenly "realize" that Kim Jong Il is not a simple lunatic, but a canny, and often pragmatic, leader. When George Bush took office and reversed Clinton's policy, the press followed suit.

What can you, or others, do to remedy this situation?

Before a journalist starts to cover foreign policy issues, he or she should first be required to report on car accidents. When there is a car accident, each side involved insists that he or she was right and the other person was wrong. The journalist has to try to piece together the facts from very different interpretations and perspectives. U.S.-North Korean relations are, essentially, a car crash, and both sides have different opinions about who is at fault. It is necessary for U.S. journalists to listen to what North Korea says and to try to understand why North Korea says what it says. Only then will the journalist begin to have a fuller appreciation of how we reached this crisis in our relations with North Korea.

We have heard quite a bit about human rights and North Korea in the United States. The South Korean government seems to be hesitant to talk about that subject. Why is that?

The South Korean government believes that a frank appraisal of human rights in North Korea at this sensitive moment will lead to a breakdown in the current engagement process. Instead, Seoul hopes that by improving relations and decreasing North Korea's isolation, the human rights situation will gradually improve.

It is very difficult to breach the subject of human rights in negotiations with North Korea. Pyongyang asserts its sovereign right to determine policy within its borders. That said, North Korea has in fact signed several international human rights treaties. Some have suggested that South Korea can simply insist that North Korea abide by its earlier commitments.

Why are human rights in North Korea such hot topic in the U.S. today?

There are two primary reasons. Some organizations have pursued a principled approach in addressing human rights in North Korea. Such groups ask that North Korea should abide by international standards just like other countries. These organizations are concerned, first and foremost, with improving the lives of North Korean people. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stand out as even-handed in their reports on North Korea. If they did not criticize North Korea as diligently as they do other countries, they would lose a good deal of their credibility.

Other organizations see human rights as a wedge issue in dealing with North Korea. They would like to see the current regime collapse. They recall how human rights campaigns contributed to the disintegration of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. So they have adopted a strategic plan of bringing up human rights to bring about the collapse of the Kim Jong-Il regime.

Both of these approaches find fertile ground in the United States. There is an almost messianic fervor behind U.S. policies to promote democracy and human rights throughout the world. It is a strain that runs deep in American history and predates our modern understanding of human rights. This fervor coincides in today's political culture with a distinct political program to maintain U.S. global power.

Those who are philosophically disposed to promote human rights around the world in an even-handed manner often take a very dim view of the U.S. record on human rights. Those who support the project to maintain U.S. global power are interested in human rights only in an instrumental sense. They embody the utilitarian streak in the American tradition. So there it is: North Korean human rights have become a big deal in the United States because the topic serves as an intersection between our messianic and our utilitarian traditions, our Puritanism and our pragmatism.

How accurate are the reports of "anti-Americanism" in South Korea? Is the feeling there different than what we find elsewhere in the world?

I am reading a book now on U.S.-Mexico relations entitled "The Mexican Shock." In his thoughtful analysis, the respected scholar Jorge Castenada criticizes Americans for consistently underestimating the importance of Mexican nationalism. "Even the modern Mexican middle classes continue to harbor deep feelings of resentment and even anger at the United States," he writes. "Their penchant for American lifestyles and products should not be mistaken for an ebbing of traditional suspicion and hostility toward the United States."

We find a tendency here in the United States to dismiss anti-Americanism in South Korea because of the popularity of Coke, or McDonald's, or Hollywood films or English words. There is a similar tendency to believe that all South Koreans should remain eternally grateful to the United States for its role in the Korean War and want to maintain the security alliance indefinitely. But a generation gap has emerged in Korea today. The younger generation doesn't feel the same need to be grateful. Moreover, they resent U.S. global power -- military, economic, political and cultural -- regardless of their penchant for the American lifestyle or their attraction to American products.

An increasing number of Koreans want South Korea to be a "normal" country in its relations with the United States. That means the relationship should be equal, not subordinate, in all respects. That sentiment is shared by many countries and peoples around the world.

How are the relations, cultural, economic and otherwise, between North Korea and the rest of Asia evolving? How does the North's ties with its neighbors compare with the relations of South Korea with those countries?

North Korea's foreign policy was once defined largely by its relations with communist states and the non-aligned movement. In the late 1980s, Pyongyang looked at the "correlation of forces," as the Marxists liked to call it, and decided that it needed to cultivate better relations with the major world powers, especially the United States and Japan. Eventually, Pyongyang's leadership perceived a need for rapprochement with the South. Pyongyang has of course maintained a relationship with Beijing and it is dependent on China for food and fuel. But the tie is not as strong as some in Washington would like to believe. Indeed, Pyongyang every so often gets cozier with Taipei to remind Beijing not to take Chinese-North Korean relations for granted.

But North Korea is not entirely in control of its relations with Asia. Both China and South Korea are trying to integrate North Korea into their own regional hubs of economic development. China is concentrating its efforts on the Rajin Sonbong region -- for instance, leasing the port of Rajin and investing in infrastructural improvements -- and South Korea has invested heavily in the Gaeseong Industrial Complex. Japan, South Korea, and China are all eager to gain access to energy resources from the Russian Far East. North Korea, however, has been unable, or unwilling, to negotiate its way into a deal so far.

South Korea has moved closer to China over the years in part based on its own geopolitical calculations, particularly in the economic realm. The relationship with Japan has, unfortunately, deteriorated recently, and that development has seriously undermined all proposals for regional economic or security frameworks. South Korea also has a more developed relationship with Southeast Asia through trade than North Korea does. From that point of view, South Korea is much more of an Asian power with an Asian perspective. North Korea remains quite parochial.
Emanuel Pastreich is adjunct professor of Asian history at George Washington University and Editor-in-Chief of "Dynamic Korea"
©2006 OhmyNews

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