Applying Lessons from the Cold War to the Korea Problem

Date: 04-25-2006

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HONOLULU (Apr. 25) - "Stalinism must die soon in North Korea," according to Walter Clemens, Boston University political science professor, an associate at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and POSCO fellow at the East-West Center. "The problem, however, is coming up with a definition of 'soon.'" And, he does not believe the parties to the ongoing negotiations over the North Korean "problem" should wait. "One reason is that if North Korea gets a nuclear weapon it would be very reluctant to give it up."

Clemens should know of what he speaks. The specialist on the former Soviet Union has written extensively on arms control and believes that lessons learned during the Cold War can be applied to the on-again off-again Six Party Talks with North Korea.

"When one government dislikes another but cannot overthrow it, its planners may choose to ignore, isolate, contain, or engage the target regime," Clemens says. "The United States would be wise", he believes, "to engage Pyongyang as a way to contain and, in time, help reform or transform" the existing government in North Korean.

Clemens admits the United States is not working in a vacuum when dealing with North Korea and that finding a coherent multi-lateral approach has been difficult.

"The United States for a long time has stressed containment as a policy toward North Korea. The South Koreans have been moving toward engagement," Clemens points out. "The U.S. has been looking at relations with Pyongyang as a zero-sum game, but the South Koreans have been taking a line that improved relations with the North would prove to be a win-win situation." He believes "the reality is any improved relations with the North would be somewhere in the middle."

Getting the North to disarm, especially giving up any nuclear weapons, will be difficult according to Clemens. He says the U.S. and the former Soviet Union were able to agree to arms control because of symmetry in terms of weapons, something that is not present in the North Korea equation. "We are asking North Korea to give up nuclear weapons without us giving up ours. That makes it much harder to reach an agreement."

Clemens says a lot of the onus is also on Pyongyang's leader Kim Jong Il, and that reaching an agreement with Washington will not be easy for the North Korean leader. He notes that "the personality cult built around Kim and the deification of his late father, one-party rule, totalitarianism, and perceived abuse by the West make it very difficult for Kim to negotiate with the United States. Of course, all of those factors also make it very difficult for us to negotiate with Kim, too."

But, the East-West Center's POSCO fellow does not believe difficulties should bring an end to negotiations. He paints a bleak picture should negotiations be abandoned. "The North Korean economy could suffer a hard landing leading to an implosion or explosion, there could be intensified repression and starvation, or the continued weapons of mass destruction program could touch off a WMD race within Asia," Clemens points out. "If Pyongyang tests nuclear weapons, there would certainly be a flight of capital out of South Korea and Japan. You might also see Japan, and possibly Taiwan, going nuclear." And, he adds, "All of those scenarios are quite possible. Things do not have to change very much for any of the worst case scenarios to come about."

But, all may not be doom and gloom. Clemens says there are also best-case scenarios that could evolve if all the parties continue to talk. "Improved relations could lead to reforms in the North Korean economy that could lead to a 'soft landing', political moderation could occur along the lines of the China model, there could be real détente with the United States and South Korea, peaceful integration with the South could be possible, or East Asia could become a zone of peace and prosperity within which both North and South could operate."

Clemens admits there are a lot of 'coulds' in both the good and bad scenarios. But, he believes, there is one overriding factor.

"I don't think we can overthrow Kim Jong Il, so we should work with him to give up any designs on nuclear weapons, or the weapons if he possesses them." Clemens says the lessons learned during the Cold War and the disarmament talks with the Soviets should not be forgotten when dealing with North Korea. "We must solve the nuclear question before any others such as economics, human rights, etc., because if Pyongyang were to set off a nuclear bomb we wouldn't be able to worry about the other issues."


Walter Clemens can be reached in Boston at 617-353-2171 or via email at

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