Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2012.04.03

Korean Peninsula Issue and Korean Americans

Some 1.7 million Korean Americans live in the United States, the majority originally from South Korea. That makes them the fifth largest group among Asian Americans. Sociologists frequently research which ethnic groups have the most influence in American politics. Although, recently, the number of Korean Americans has increased rapidly, I had been under the impression that their influence remained weak. After recently attending "The Conference on Peace and Cooperation in Northeast Asia" in the United States, however, I realized that I needed to revisit my views.

Korean Americans, with Korean, and American scholars, organized the conference. The conference theme was broad, but in essence, its focus was on how to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula. Representatives from the countries of the Six Party Talks attended the conference, along with those from Germany and the EU. This was a non-governmental Track II meeting and government officials participated in their non-official capacities. German participation was due to the fact that the Friedrich Ebert Foundation bore the costs of the conference and was present to offer experience from the German reunification.

Both former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and U.S. Senator John Kerry attended the conference and delivered speeches. A basic rule of the conference was that the names of the participants and the contents of the discussions are not to be made public; however, members of the press were waiting for Kissinger and Kerry at the entrance and so this rule does not apply to the two of them.

Kerry was the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate and is the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. One might surmise that he now has more political power than Kissinger, who retired from government some time ago.

The number of conference participants was under fifty. Conference organizers can be proud that influential players, such as Kissinger and Kerry, participated. If Japan were to hold a similar conference, it would be difficult to secure participants of their stature.

As Kerry was being introduced by the chairman of National Association of Korean Americans, who was seated next to him, I wondered about the relationship between Kerry and the Association.

Also attending the conference was Ri Yong Ho, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of North Korea, and the new DPRK representative to the Six Party Talks and to the negotiations with the United States. One wonders how DPRK managed to arrange his visit to the U.S. With the U.S. sanctions in place, it must have been difficult for him to obtain a U.S. visa. The fact that Vice Minister Ri was able to visit the U.S. can be credited to Korean Americans and Korean scholars.

The new DPRK representative's visit to the States and to his participation in the conference drew keen attention from both the Japanese and South Korean media. Many reporters from Beijing and Seoul came to New York. Given the ground rules, it must have been difficult for them to report on the conference, but there seem to have been quite a number of press reports.

Vice Minister Ri, in essence, stated that DPRK has a strong desire to improve its relations with the United States. Although this is nothing new, the new leader at the country's helm, by sending to the conference its new negotiator with the U.S., seems be signaling once again that DPRK attaches importance to its relations with the U.S. Vice Minister Ri is perfect for this role. He is an experienced diplomat, speaks fluent English, has a soft and open demeanor, and enjoyed a good reputation during his tenure as DPRK's ambassador to the United Kingdom.

By contrast, for the South Korean government, the conference left something to be desired. The government sent its own representative to the Six Party Talks at the last minute, hoping that he would be able to meet and talk directly and in person with the DPRK representative. The conference organizers had a room available for them to meet any time, but no talks between the North and the South materialized.

DPRK was able to make its case to the United States, thanks to the efforts of Korean Americans and Korean scholars. Vice Minister Ri disregarded their efforts to have him engage in direct talks with South Korea. Ten days after the conference, North Korea announced its plan to launch a satellite, and notified the IAEA that it would accept an inspection of its nuclear facilities, simultaneously mixing a hard line and softer actions. North Korea is very wily.

North Korea, South Korea, and Korean Americans hope for the reunification of Korean Peninsula, but it looks like it will take a while before this is actually realized. The conference participants, however, all agreed that the conference was useful and concluded that such conferences should continue. I sincerely hope that these processes will bring about some solutions to the difficult problems facing the two Koreas.