SOUTH KOREA’S POLICY MAKING PROCESS ON NORTH KOREA’S NUCLEAR ISSUE: A Random Note

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the North's acceptance, to the U.S. Assistant Secretary, "SOUTH KOREA’S POLICY MAKING PROCESS ON NORTH KOREA’S NUCLEAR ISSUE: A Random Note", Global Problem Solving, December 31, 1994, https://nautilus.org/global-problem-solving/south-koreas-policy-making-process-on-north-koreas-nuclear-issue-a-random-note/

SOUTH KOREA'S POLICY MAKING PROCESS ON NORTH KOREA'S NUCLEAR ISSUE: A Random Note

Jeong Woo Kil

Senior Fellow

Research Institute for National Unification

Seoul, Korea


prepared for the Northeast Asia Peace and Security Network

managed by Nautilus Institute, Berkeley, California


  Introduction

 The Kim Young Sam government was inaugurated with mixed blessing 
in February last year. The Kim government was the first civilian 
government freely elected after thirty-year authoritarian rule 
and seemed to be prepared to launch a rather progressive policies 
in every sector of domestic politics, economy, social and even 
inter- Korean relations. Such ambitious attempt was possible 
thanks to the public trust and expectation over the civilian 
regime led by the former opposition leader who has devoted his 
life in fighting against authoritarianism. But on the other hand 
the Kim government should face a new challenge when North Korea's 
nuclear problem began to draw a serious attention from the 
international society. 

Around the time of the Kim's inauguration the IAEA regarding 
North Korea's nuclear development program found significant 
discrepancies between Pyongyang's initial report to the IAEA in 
May 1992 and findings after six-round inspections. Increasing 
suspicion over the North's intention drove the Board of 
Governors' decision to ask special inspection over the North's 
two undeclared sites in Yongbyon. 

President Kim's new staff working on foreign affairs, security 
and inter-Korean affairs were all former college professors who 
had no previous experience in public service. Among the so-called 
"Gang of Four" consisting of Deputy Prime Minister of Unification 
Han Wan-Sang, Foreign Minister Han Sung-Joo, President's Security 
Advisor Chung Chong-Wook, and the National Security 
Planning(Korean CIA)'s chief Kim Duk, the DPM Han varied in his 
career from the others. Dr. Han was all-time in the side of the 
oppressed and human rights activist expelled twice from the 
university campus. He promoted a progressive policy in the inter-
Korean relations and in humanitarian reasons was very supportive 
in the President's decision to bring back Lee In-Mo, a North 
Korean journalist captured in the Korean War opposing to convert 
to the South. That issue was well over-due and has often ignited 
confrontation in previous North-South talks. 

The Unification Minister Han became a easy target of the 
conservative camp when the North announced to pull out of the NPT 
just the following day Seoul officially decided to return Lee In-
Mo to the North. It was Dr. Han's misfortune to drive himself to 
the setting where he would be inevitably in a defensive position 
in planning and undertaking unification policy with progressive 
tone. 

To four former professors with no experience of public service 
North Korea's nuclear problem appeared as a serious challenge and 
frustration. Nuclear issue was a very new issue to South Korean 
government and no official debate was allowed since former 
president Park Chung Hee's attempt to develop nuclear weapons 
indigenously in late 1970s. And no expertise was accumulated in 
the government on how to deal with the nuclear problem and no 
enough understanding was shared about the implications of nuclear 
weapons in the Peninsula. Under the nuclear umbrella of the 
United States South Korea had neither leverage nor voice on the 
issue for the last thirty years. Such lack of understanding and 
limited room of leverage made new Kim Young Sam government get 
frustrated and show fluctuation in its dealing with nuclear 
problem from the beginning. 

Considering the position taken by each of the Gang of Four on 
security issues, the Unification Minister Han is the most 
progressive, Foreign Minister Han is probably the next, and Dr. 
Chung at the Blue House and Dr. Kim of the NSP are representing 
the conservative voice. The NSP chief Kim was not affiliated with 
the conservative camp when he was professor, but as chief of the 
intelligence agency he should no choice but to represent his 
institution, the champion of the conservative. Dr. Chung could 
enjoy his power supported by the Chief Secretary to the President 
Park Kwan Yong, but became quite often blamed by his colleagues 
on his indecisiveness and lack of capacity in coordination.  
Following development of the nuclear issue and South Korean 
government's policy decisions regarding the problem were made by 
this group of gentlemen until the Unification Minister Han 
stepped down December 1993 replaced by a conservative educator 
Lee Yung Duk. 

First Stage: Frustration of the Progressive

 Nuclear problem was from the beginning the international issue 
which the United States paid serious attention to every step of 
its development. And in some sense North Korea's claim to discuss 
the issue only with the U.S. was not unwarranted. Due to the U.S. 
concern over the issue the Foreign Minister Han became in charge 
of monitoring the development of debate in between Washington and 
Pyongyang, and between the IAEA and North Korea. 

The first stage regarding nuclear debate was until the North and 
South Koreas agreed to discuss about the exchange of special 
envoy in preparation of the inter-Korean summit meeting in June 
22, 1993. To the proposal of the North on special envoy the Kim 
administration expressed initial reluctance after assuming that 
the North sought to nullify the previous mechanism of the inter-
Korean dialogue under the framework of the Basic Agreement which 
was put into effective February 1992. But just after Security 
Advisor Chung's trip to Washington the Kim government suddenly 
changed its position to accept the North's proposal. 

The UN Security Council's decision on May 11 to appeal to the 
member countries to keep dialogue with North Korea for resolving 
the nuclear problem by peaceful means and South Korea's 
acceptance of Pyongyang's proposal provided the U.S. with excuse 
to resume bilateral dialogue. This occasion reflects that the 
internal debate in the South Korean government on the inter- 
Korean affairs was prevailed by the Washington's voice and 
difference of opinions among four key decision makers in Seoul 
was almost meaningless in deciding its own fate. In the final 
decision the Unification Minister Han and Foreign Minster Han 
were favorable of opening new channel of dialogue with the North 
while two others were rather reluctant. Security Advisor Chung 
had no choice but to follow the U.S. request on the issue when he 
met with many key officials in Washington, even though his 
mission was to persuade the U.S. counterpart to understand and 
support Seoul's assessment of Pyongyang's intention regarding the 
special envoy proposal. 

Second Stage: Making Two Different Voices Relieved

 The first and second round of the U.S.-DPRK talks in New York 
and Geneva respectively made South Korean government nervous 
because these high-level meetings were unprecedented except the 
January 1992 meeting in New York between Kim Yong Sun and 
Undersecretary Arnord Kanter on the eve of the North's signing 
the Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.  South Korea's Foreign 
Minister's role was to justify the significance of the U.S.-DPRK 
meetings in the course of resolving the nuclear problem and the 
DPM Han was supportive to the agreement, and Dr. Chung could not 
have reservation to that even though the conservative circle 
launched a campaign of criticism that South Korean government was 
dismissed in the game. 

The conservatives in the South spoke up their voice when the 
North violated its commitment to accept to resume inspection 
talks with the IAEA and the inter-Korean dialogue before the 
third round talks between the U.S. and DPRK. As the IAEA Board of 
Governors' meeting and the UN Security Council were discussing 
the measures against the North, Pyongyang conveyed its message of 
so-called "package deal" to Mr. Ken Quinones accompanying the 
U.S. Congressman Gary Ackerman's trip to Pyongyang in October 
1993. In a couple of weeks North Korean government officially 
proposed its position in November regarding the package deal by 
Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju, a North Korean 
representative of the U.S.-DPRK high-level talks. 

South Korean government showed strong reluctance of the North's 
package deal approach to the nuclear issue, but opinions were 
divided among four key members of decision making. Two Hans 
joined the side in interpreting the North's proposal as simply 
reflection of Pyongyang's defensive position because the North 
has very limited cards to play in dealing with the U.S..  But the 
other two had different views by reading the North's intention 
which is just playing for time without showing any good will to 
resolve the problem, and they opposed to accept the concept of 
package deal. However their complaint was a little bit pacified 
by the North's acceptance, to the U.S. Assistant Secretary 
Gallucci's message to the North on September 20, 1993, of working 
level preparatory meeting for the exchange of special envoy 
between Seoul and Pyongyang, which was held three times in 
October. 

The United States began seriously analyzing the North's intention 
and concluded in mid-November to try a comprehensive approach 
even tentatively in the course of resolving the nuclear problem. 
This was a very important shift of the U.S. position and 
unexpected step considering its status of the one and only 
superpower in the Post-Cold War era.  But this was a serious 
beginning of the encounter between the North's package deal and 
the U.S. comprehensive approach. 

Third Stage: U.S. Prevailing over S. Korea's Policy Debate

 South Korea's concern over the U.S. big shift in its previous 
position ignited a serious debate and sense of urgency concerning 
the lost ground of its choice in the process of discussing the 
nuclear problem which threatens the security of the South. 
President Kim's unexpected, bold gesture in the summit meeting 
with President Clinton in Washington November 23, 1993 created a 
new concept, "thorough and broad approach" to the nuclear issue. 
The Kim administration made a jargon to demonstrate its own voice 
in the nuclear game and tried to show to the North the U.S.-South 
Korean cooperation.  Since then the official position of the U.S. 
and South Korea was represented by this term. When we consider 
the differences remained in the U.S. interpretation and the South 
Korean one, the new words were made to the initiative or urge of 
some strong criticism in the Blue House on Foreign Minster Han's 
soft line leaning toward the U.S. decision. 

A series of working level meetings between the U.S. and DPRK were 
held in New York and two parties reached an agreement on basic 
framework for continuing dialogue in between on the nuclear issue 
on December 29, 1993. And the inter-Korean dialogue resumed in 
March this year regarding the exchange of special envoy. But the 
problem came up concerning interpretation of the U.S.-DPRK 
agreement on so-called Four-Point measures to be simultaneously 
implemented including fixing the date of the third round high-
level talks between Washington and Pyongyang. 

The point of major conflict was the terms on special envoy. South 
Korea claimed that the actual exchange of special envoy should be 
a precondition to the resumption of the U.S.-DPRK third round 
talks, but the North argued that some basic agreement on the 
details of the issue was good enough to resume the talks with the 
U.S.  Finally the U.S. supported the Seoul's position and the 
North representative's notorious warning of "Sea of Fire" at the 
working level meeting March 19 stalled the inter-Korean dialogue, 
which quickly raised tension in the Peninsula. 

North Korea's blunt words ignited hot debate in South Korea and 
the hardliners took up their voice in the discussion and drew 
broad support from the conservative camp in the political circle 
and the media. Which drove the softliners, probably solely 
represented by the Foreign Minister Han Sung-Joo to keep silent. 
Minister Han was a lonely fighter in the government policy making 
circle since the former Unification Minister Han stepped down 
December last year. 

 Fourth Stage: Hardliners Speak up Again

 In the midst the Kim administration kept tough position against 
the North, the Blue House staff took the lead in most decisions 
in foreign and inter-Korean affairs. They were active in 
mobilizing the international support to drive the situation to 
the sanctions against the North. 

North Korea responded very firmly by announcing on May 13 the 
replacement of the 5MW reactor core which heightened the 
international concern over the North's nuclear development 
program. And the debate on sanctions by the international 
community led by the U.S. at the UN Security Council was 
activated and South Korean government as a party directly 
concerned had no choice but joining the U.S. move. And South 
Korea even should take an active role in mobilizing the 
neighboring countries's support from Beijing and Moscow. 

It is an irony that Foreign Minister Han, softliner should take 
such an awkward role to ask China's participation to the 
sanctions against the North following the request of the 
hardiners in the government policy making circle. 

International move toward sanctions continued and intensified 
until the former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's visit to Pyongyang 
and meeting with Kim Il Sung in mid June this year. South Korean 
government did not give significant meaning to Carter's visit and 
even expressed caution in the sense that his trip might mislead 
the North Korean leadership and provide Kim Il Sung a wrong 
message of appeasement at a very critical moment on the eve of 
sanctions. 

However, the Clinton administration had many reasons to take 
advantage of his trip. The U.S. could find out the passage of the 
resolution at the UN Security Council to go against the North 
seemed impossible considering China's reluctance and Russia's 
ambivalence. And President Clinton tried to find an excuse to 
shift the move of sanctions to the phase of dialogue. Especially 
many experts warned the limit of effectiveness of sanctions 
against the North and unpredictable military reaction from 
Pyongyang. That is why President Clinton even intentionally 
exaggerated Carter's visit and his accomplishment. South Korea 
became once again positioned in a complicated situation, but had 
only to share the U.S. interpretation by quickly accepting 
President Kim Il Sung's proposal of the inter-Korean summit.  
President Kim Young Sam's quick acceptance of the summit meeting 
proposal amazed his staff but the decision seemed to reflect 
President Kim's sentiment of worrying that Seoul might be 
dismissed in the nuclear game played mainly by Washington and 
Pyongyang. 

In this fourth stage, what should not be ignored in the Kim 
administration's policy making mechanism is the outstanding role 
of new Deputy Prime Minister of Unification, Lee Hong-Koo. He was 
former unification minister and established scholar --- who is 
among the Gang of Four the only high ranking official with 
previous experience in public service and with good sense of 
politics. The Unification Minister Lee could quickly take control 
of making major policies as head of the coordinating body of 
unification and security policies, and he enjoyed full mandate of 
the President. Minister Lee was senior professor of Foreign 
Minister Han and Security Advisor Chung, and contributed to 
easing policy confrontations between different voices from the 
Foreign Ministry and the Blue House. 

Fifth Stage: Softliners Gaining Power, but Wait

 Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter provided new momentum for 
Presidents Clinton and Kim Young Sam to shift their months-long 
sustained policies to rather conciliatory ones and the U.S. and 
South Korea could begin preparing for the third round Geneva 
talks and the historical inter-Korean summit respectively. This 
climate of dialogue may continue under North Korea's new leader 
Kim Jong Il even after Great Leader's sudden death on July 8. 

The Unification Minister Lee's role is preeminent as he 
successfully drew an agreement last month in preparatory meeting 
for the summit with the North's counterpart Kim Yong Sun, and is 
really in charge of coordinating policies toward the North based 
on full support of the President. Security Advisor Chung has 
recently played a key role in preparing for the summit and 
Foreign Minister is closely monitoring the upcoming U.S.-DPRK 
talks in Geneva. The NSP Chief Dr. Kim was in awkward position 
under the criticism by the Korean National Assembly when the NSP 
exposed its limit in gathering intelligence regarding Kim Il 
Sung's death. 

How the role play is to be readjusted in the immediate future of 
the Kim Young Sam government will be decided in the course of the 
U.S.-DPRK negotiations on nuclear issue and affected by the new 
North Korean regime's attitude on the nuclear problem. 
Considering President Kim Young Sam is quite sensitive to the 
public sentiment and the domestic media's coverage of current 
affairs, we cannot underestimate the influence of the Korean mass 
media over South Korea's policy making process. 

 In a nutshell, South Korea's policy making process has been 
derailed time to time for the last 18 months when struggling with 
North Korea's nuclear issue, and this fluctuation of policies 
reflects without sufficient filtering lively or democratic policy 
debate among the Gang of Four who has rather broad spectrum of 
views. But under the Korean presidential system, President's 
style and personality dominate the mind and behavior of his 
cabinet ministers and the Blue House staffs regardless of their 
own philosophy and ideas. 

President Kim Young Sam may finally find a balanced character, 
the Unification Minister Lee, a good coordinator of different 
voices in the policy making circle and an effective buffer 
against the public criticism from the conservative political camp 
and the media. 


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