History prof: Why Bush shuns North Korea

If America’s goal is to stop nuclear proliferation, it’s dealing with North Korea in the wrong way, this Korea expert says

TALK WITH THEM<br> The only way to stop North Korea from developing nuclear capabilities is for the U.S. to begin negotiating directly with it, says Jim Matray, the chairman of Chico State’s History Department.

The only way to stop North Korea from developing nuclear capabilities is for the U.S. to begin negotiating directly with it, says Jim Matray, the chairman of Chico State’s History Department.

Photo By Bryce Benson

If the United States truly wants to limit nuclear proliferation, lifting economic sanctions against North Korea would be a good start, and an obvious one at that, said professor Jim Matray during an International Forum lecture titled “Needless Quarrel: The U.S. Confrontation with North Korea,” Tuesday at Chico State University’s Holt Hall.

“The current sanctions make it a necessity for North Korea to do business with Iran, because what do they need most?” he asked, rubbing his thumb in a circle on the fingers of his outstretched hand. “Hard currency.”

The business Matray spoke of is the arms business, and North Korea proved its nuclear capabilities last October by carrying out its first nuclear-weapons test. It also has test-fired several missiles and is capable of exporting both nuclear and missile technology.

But even more unfortunate for Korea—North and South—is the fact that President Bush, “surrounded by the neo-cons in his cabinet,” is calling the shots, lamented Matray, one of the nation’s leading experts on Korea in the post-World War II era and chairman of the History Department at Chico State.

Round five of the six-party talks between the U.S., Russia, China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea were scheduled to begin Thursday (Feb. 8), but Matray said he expects them to fail again because that is Bush’s goal.

“The policy of the Bush administration is regime change, as evident in Iraq,” Matray said to the 47 people in attendance.

It’s called “hawk engagement,” he continued. The idea is simple: The U.S. shows up to negotiate, but doesn’t negotiate. That’s not why it’s really there. The real reason is to prove that progress with the current regime cannot be made. Once North Korea “is discredited, economic sanctions speed the demise.”

“Right now we are at a diplomatic dead end,” Matray said, “a standstill after so much work was done during the Clinton administration to reconcile with North Korea.”

Giving a brief history lesson, he explained why U.S.-Korea relations have been so rocky. After World War II, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel, with the Soviets exercising tacit control in the north and the U.S. in the south. During the Korean War, the U.S. “pummeled North Korea, killing an estimated 2 million citizens” in a massive bombing campaign designed to break the country’s will.

“From then on you could imagine why North Korea hated us, feared us and did not trust us,” Matray said. “From 1994 to 2000, the Clinton administration worked tirelessly to build trust through long and labored negotiations, but all that was thrown out the window with the Bush administration.”

After China stepped in on the side of the north during the Korean War, the U.S. retreated back to the 38th parallel and left Korea divided as it is today. Since then South Korea has prospered, while North Korea remains a lasting symbol of the failure of communism.

“Have you ever seen a satellite image of the Korean Peninsula at night?” Matray asked. “Below the de-militarized zone, South Korea looks like a light bulb. But north, it’s pitch black.”

So what should be done to turn on the lights in the north and make one Korea?

Matray doesn’t think anything will be done while Bush is in office, so the first thing to do is wait two more years, then hope for an administration that returns to diplomacy.

“We have to stop trying for regime change,” he said. “The first thing that needs to be done is to start bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea to start rebuilding trust; then, start talking with South Korea to see how it wants to go about reunification.”

The International Forum’s spring series is held every Tuesday at 5 p.m. in Chico State’s Holt Hall Room 170. Myrna Santiago will give her lecture, “The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution,” Feb. 13. Contact Tony Waters with questions at 898-6384.