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  November 18, 2002

Engagement With North Korea Key
To Stability, Says Ambassador
By Sherry Fisher

Despite the "glacier of mistrust" between North and South Korea, and between North Korea and the United States, engaging the North "must be pursued resolutely," according to South Korea's ambassador to the United States.

Sung Chul Yang spoke Nov. 7 in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center's Konover Auditorium. He urged the audience not to be discouraged by temporary stalemates, nor excited about one-time successes. Rather, he said, "we need to be proactive, vigilant, and unwavering when we engage North Korea."

Sung Chul Yang, Ilpyong Kim and Roger Buckley
Sung Chul Yang, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the United States, left, speaks with Roger Buckley, professor of history and director of UConn's Asian American Studies Institute, and Ilpyong Kim, professor emeritus of political science.

Photo by Peter Morenus

According to Yang, the 1993-94 nuclear crisis is different from the current situation on the Korean peninsula. "Thanks to the vision and leadership of President Kim Dae-jung, who has been patiently and persistently pursuing the Sunshine Policy, the tension level on the Korean peninsula is at an all-time low," Yang said.

He noted that since the early 1990s, the Korean people have learned to respond to crises in a "much more mature and controlled manner."

Yang said the Sunshine Policy, a process of diplomacy and dialogue based on deterrence, is behind the success of recent international athletic events and South Korea's economic vitality and stability.

"Could Korea have achieved the present stable and robust economy without reform and restructuring in the four sectors - financial, corporate, labor and public? Could it have recovered so quickly from financial crisis or successfully co-hosted the World Cup with Japan and the Asian Games if a high level of tension existed on the Korean peninsula? Who would have invested such record amounts in Korea over the last four years if the Sunshine Policy had not been implemented? Could Korea have achieved such an unprecedented stable economy if the Sunshine Policy were not pursued relentlessly? Could the Korean people respond to the recent news about North Korea's nuclear weapons program without panic if the Sunshine Policy had not been successful in stabilizing inter-Korean relations?" Yang asked. "The answers to these questions are self-evident."

Yang said it will take a long time for North Korea to move out of its totalitarian system, which is compounded by its geographically induced claustrophobia. "For any country, it is a Herculean task to shed more than half a century-old entrenched isolation and encapsulation."

Yang said the inter-Korean relations of the past 50 years, especially in the last four and one-half years, reveals a cyclical path. "In one cycle, the inter-Korean dialogue makes progress. In the next, a setback occurs, such as the first naval incident of June 1999. Another dialogue, exemplified by the historic 2000 summit, takes place. At the present time, the two sides are again in dialogue mode, after temporarily heightened tension in the wake of the second naval clash this year."

North Korea's image has changed over the years, Yang said.

"Not long ago, the people of the Republic of Korea and the rest of the world had a monolithic image of North Korea as a militant, war-mongering threat to security and stability on the Korean peninsula and the region," he said. "But now, the image of North Korea is mixed, at best."

He said the current image of North Korea is that of refugees overwhelming foreign embassies in Beijing - the outward manifestation of the masses suffering from chronic shortages of food, energy, and other means of livelihood. North Korea has become one of the poorest nations, as well as the largest food aid recipient in the world.

According to Yang, despite living under two diametrically opposed political and economic systems for more than half a century, the people of North and South Korea still retain a high degree of homogeneity: they speak the same language, share the same history, culture, heritage, and ethnicity.

"The Korean peninsula still remains the only area which is not free from the burden of the Cold War," Yang said. "It is indeed time for the Korean people and all freedom-loving people around the world to remove this last vestige of the Cold War and lay the foundation for peaceful Korean unity."

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