October 2, 2006

Culture May Solve N. Korean Issues

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Without your lips, your teeth would rot away, or so says an old Chinese idiom. Today, the phrase refers to the symbiotic relations between China and North Korea, implying not only the closeness and mutual dependence of the two nations, but also the tendency for the teeth to regularly bite the lips, as Prof. Jian Chen, history, joked Saturday.

It is in reference to this expression that Chen and Prof. J.J. Suh, government, have spent over a year planning an international conference that aimed to examine the two nations’ ties under a new light.

A dozen professors and researchers from all over the world met at Cornell last weekend to study newly-released documents and their historical context.

“We used Chinese, Russian and eastern European archives to provide insight on previously less-studied issues,” Chen said. “We looked at the limit of China’s influence on North Korea, although looking at the future was not our primary task. However, the current studies of the North Korea nuclear crisis are without the support of insight gained from the past.”

The conference, although largely consisting of historians, did finish with an eye towards the contemporary and the future: in the only public session on Saturday, entitled, “The North Korea Nuclear Crisis: Implications for China and the United States,” conference participants discussed on how to deal with today’s issue of North Korea’s nuclear threat.

An overarching theme throughout the discussion was that the participants were worried that today’s policy toward North Korea had been constructed without taking into account the history and culture of the country.

“These so-called policy wonks … produce policy prescriptions without the knowledge of the cultural and historical context,” Suh said. “It could become misleading and problematic.”

“Today, most public discourse on this topic is based on serious distortions of the facts,” said Prof. Bruce Cumings, history, University of Chicago, who was an attendee.

In agreement with many of the speakers, Cumings said that the Bush administration had orchestrated the “worst performance seen in [his] lifetime” while dealing with North Korea, particularly in comparison to how the Clinton administration dealt with the issue.

“The goal is regime change, and the key is China’s influence … but North Korea won’t go away just because of coercion and pressure. The regime has deep roots and is certainly not fragile; simply the fact that it still exists is testament to that,” said Prof. Charles Armstrong, history, Columbia University.

Most of the participants believed that today’s North Korea policy was flawed in one way or another and ended up agreeing on how to change it.

Kathyrn Weathersby of the Wilson Center suggested that we “solve the nuclear problem by creating multilateral strategy in Asia … by creating a dense web of inter-relationships and increasing the channels of communication and … defusing the potential conflicts.”

She emphasized that we “engage North Korea in every way possible” whereby other participants suggested cultural exchanges such as inviting musical troupes to perform in Carnegie Hall.

Armstrong added, “The nuclear problem is easy to solve. You need normalization of relations with the U.S.; you need to drop the hostile intent and to pull the relationship out of the cold.” Cumings claimed, “North Korea is just waiting for the Bush administration to leave.”

Chen added that Bush’s policy has become a complete reversal of Clinton’s, and the lack of consistency was particularly troubling. When Bush named North Korea as one of the “axis of evil” nations, Chen believed Bush had “destroyed the U.S.’s credibility in dealing with North Korea.”

The participants agreed that China’s influence on North Korea would play perhaps the most important role in resolving the nuclear crisis, but Prof. Chae-Jin Lee, government, Claremont McKenna College, believed China did not quite understand this.

“China’s current leaders do not have any warm feelings or special relationships with the North Korean leadership … unlike the previous generation of Chinese leaders,” Lee said. “There are frequent visits between the countries, providing a sympathetic posture, but not a real one.”

Chen jokingly added, “Not only does China need to understand its limits of influence [on North Korea], but I’ll also recommend to [their top leaders] that they need to pretend to be cooperative with the U.S.”

Although “historians are not in the business of predicting the future,” Cumings asserted, the conference’s participants continued to recommend taking into account the cultural and historical context during policymaking.

In particular, Prof. Sherman Cochran, history, an audience member at the discussion, felt the need to redefine the term “rationality” for a state like North Korea.

The conference was sponsored by the East Asia Program, the China and Asia Pacific Studies Program, the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, the government department, the history department and the Peace Studies Program.

Professors from Korean, Japanese, Mongolian, Chinese and several American universities arrived for two days of closed-session conferencing in part to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1956 political crisis in North Korea.