Korea: A House Divided

Fifty years after the armistice, the two Koreas' legacy of conflict underlies a deepening crisis.

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When the United States decided to suspend the fuel-oil shipments a month after Kelly visited Pyongyang, the crisis gathered steam. In December, North Korea announced it was reactivating a nuclear-power plant that had been shut down in 1994. In January, the regime pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Since then, North Korean officials have claimed that they are reprocessing plutoniumladen spent-fuel rods into enough weapons-grade material to build several bombs a year. And in a brief negotiating session sponsored by the Chinese in Beijing in April, the North Koreans warned the Americans that unless the United States was prepared to offer a nonaggression pact and massive economic aid, Pyongyang reserved the right to test, deploy and perhaps even export part of its nuclear arsenal. President Bush has called the North Korean position tantamount to blackmail. And State Department spokesman Richard Boucher has said the United States will not “pay for the elimination of nuclear-weapons programs that never should have been there in the first place.”


Meanwhile, Washington’s relations with Seoul have been strained. A new South Korean president, Roh Moo Hyun, won election this past December riding a wave of anti-Americanism. Many voters, especially younger constituents, are determined to see their country take charge of its foreign policy and emerge from America’s shadow. Last year, two South Korean girls in the town of Uijeongbu were fatally crushed by an American armored vehicle, and the crew was later exonerated by a U.S. military tribunal. The incident prompted speculation that the new government would ask the United States to relocate many of the 37,000 troops stationed in South Korea.


More recently—since coalition forces removed Saddam Hussein from power and President Roh visited Washington—tensions between Washington and Seoul seem to be easing; the North Koreans and Americans have for the time being opted to negotiate an end to the nuclear crisis. But enthusiasm for the Sunshine Policy has waned. South Koreans have been dismayed by charges that former president Kim Dae Jung, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for launching the Sunshine Policy, authorized the secret payment of hundreds of millions of dollars to Kim Jong Il to arrange their 2000 summit in Pyongyang. “Kim Dae Jung has fallen into disgrace; no doubt about it,” says Yoon Tae-hee, the university president. Many South Koreans no longer trust Kim Jong Il over the nuclear issue, despite his regime’s avowals that any atomic arsenal would be entirely directed at security threats from the United States. “People find it harder to believe that he would never use nuclear weapons on his fellow Koreans in the South,” says Yoon. “After all, he hasn’t demonstrated much concern about millions of his citizens dying of starvation.”


Still, many South Koreans seem committed to using their nation’s resources to induce a more accommodating attitude in Pyongyang and prevent the North’s collapse. “North Korea is very definitely facing famine again,” says economist Noland. By contrast, South Korea, after four decades of miraculous growth, is on the verge of becoming one of the world’s wealthiest nations.


The basic ingredients of the South’s economic miracle have long been in place: a strong emphasis on education, the creation of export-oriented industries and the concentration of economic power in a few large conglomerates. More recently, after an Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s, South Korea has opened up its markets to foreign investors, removed barriers to imports and, most notably, says Tufts economist Kim, “encouraged a huge jump in consumer spending.”



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