Time for Korean Americans to be heard on North Korea

North Korea has conducted its fifth nuclear test

North Korea’s fifth nuclear test is yet another example of how brazen provocation desensitizes us to the truly significant. While many will debate the details of the latest test, few in the Korean-American community are focusing on the bigger picture – that a US policy of increasing pressure will almost certainly fail and will likely result in one or a combination of three bad outcomes:

  • a significant risk of armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula;
  • a North Korea with a nuclear arsenal capable of hitting the continental US;
  • or weapons-grade nuclear material being secreted out of North Korea and sold to terrorists.

Given these costs, the Korean-American community needs to do more.

Over the short-term, one can be certain of the US, South Korean and Japanese response – more sanctions, more pressure, more defensive military measures. This in turn will lead to one more round of dangerous one-upmanship with a Kim Jong- Un, who clearly has a penchant for ratcheting up tensions. A missile test that goes badly off course, an exchange of fire along the DMZ that kills a soldier or civilian, or a collision of naval or fishing vessels in contested fishing grounds – all of which have happened in the recent past – could quickly turn into a crisis. Heavily armed North Korean, South Korean and US troops on and around the Korean Peninsula only make the situation more precarious. One can easily see a small spark inadvertently igniting a devastating fire.

Even if short-term miscalculation or mistake can be avoided, the long-term prospects are not much better. Given the state of US-Chinese relations it is highly unlikely that sanctions of any kind imposed by the US and its allies will change North Korean behavior. Undeterred, Pyongyang will continue to produce weapons-grade nuclear material – now at a rate of about one bomb’s worth of material every ten weeks. This means it is only a matter of time before the North becomes more heavily armed, with the capability to hit the US West Coast with a nuclear weapon.

Finally, one must understand that there also is a significant downside if international sanctions and other forms of pressure work too well. However satisfying to us, truly crushing and prolonged sanctions increase the chances that stressed elites or rogue elements in North Korea will sell nuclear material or technology to the highest bidder. And if the Kim regime were to fall – by internal or external coup – “loose nukes” would become an enormous threat. Under this scenario, who would control the country’s nuclear material? Nobody knows. However, if fissile material were to find its way out of the North, there is little doubt that a nuclear explosion elsewhere would not be far off.

For Korean-Americans, many of us who have close family, relatives and friends in South Korea, the stakes therefore couldn’t be higher. So why are there not more of us in the Korean-American community making our voices heard in Washington and elsewhere?

During the Clinton administration, I was appointed to the US Department of State where I worked as a close aide to former Secretary of Defense William Perry and Ambassador Wendy Sherman when both served as the first two US Coordinators for US Policy toward North Korea from 1998 to 2001. I traveled to North Korea four times for high-level negotiations, and one of my roles was to make sure that the Korean-American community was consulted as we developed policy. I was particularly proud of my efforts in this regard because previously such input to the US government had been rare. It was my hope at the time that this kind of engagement would become routine.

The role of Korean-Americans in US politics and policy is certainly greater now than when I was in government. The Council of Korean Americans, a relatively new organization of which I am a member, is making great strides here. However, in these difficult times, it is vital that Korean-Americans band together more tightly to deal with North Korea. Due to ideological rancor, deliberate misinformation, and a plain failure to understand the nuances of North Korea and the Korean Peninsula, our government and its policymaking process needs more help from us than perhaps ever before.

So what can Korean-Americans do?

Though Iran and North Korea are very different cases in significant ways, I believe we might be able to learn something from the role that my organization – Ploughshares Fund, a public foundation with a $10 million annual budget that is supported by more than 1,100 donors – played with respect to the recent Iranian nuclear accord. It can perhaps provide lessons for Korean-Americans seeking innovative ways to use their money, time and efforts to promote needed change.

Last year’s international agreement with Iran rolled back its nuclear program without starting another deadly war in the Middle East, something believed to be impossible as little as five years ago. It was a resounding victory for global security, a nuclear accord with appropriate safeguards that was deemed the strongest in a generation and one that set a new standard for any future nonproliferation agreements. And it is working.

However, in an era of Washington hyper-partisanship, not everybody saw the deal as a good idea. There were enormous challenges, and there was great fear that negotiations and any deal would be killed by US domestic politics. What has received little attention is the important role philanthropy played throughout to keep the possibility of a good deal with Iran alive and then make sure that that good deal was not overturned by Congress.

So what did Ploughshares Fund do? We became the strategic voice for many of our donors and supporters – those who wanted to impact US policy toward Iran but did not have the means to do it alone. At its core, we made sure the media and public had all the facts (not only some) about Iran, its nuclear program and the deal itself. And we accomplished this by becoming the hub of a highly efficient and diverse network involving 85 organizations and 200 individuals. Critical to this network were Iranian-American and Jewish-American groups, both of which had deep concerns for the safety of the region and a noted expertise. Indeed, Ploughshares Fund’s efforts were so effective that we were the subject of 2015 news articles in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Would an approach similar to what Ploughshares Fund used on Iran work for North Korea? I think it just might have a chance. Like the Jewish and Iranian-Americans who made a difference on our Iran campaign, we are convinced that Korean-American individuals and groups would add tremendous value to any effort, maybe the difference between success and failure. Nothing is assured; but in light of the North Korean threat, the Korean-American community has no choice but to try.

Viable options are dwindling quickly. If the Korean-American community waits for our government to come up with a solution on its own, it will be too late. But the need for Korean-American engagement is more than just pushing for action. Our community has a unique set of experiences, wisdom and perspectives that will be absolutely critical if the US is to avoid being faced with the terrible choices: a North Korea with nuclear tipped missiles aimed at the US mainland, the possibility of a nuclear attack by terrorists on US soil, or a devastating war to prevent all this from happening. The time to act is now.


Philip W. Yun, Executive Director and Chief Operating Office of Ploughshares Fund and a senior policy advisor at the US Department of State from 1994 to 2001

Originally published in Korean in the Korea Daily (Joong Ang Ilbo), Los Angeles edition

Photo: Korean Bell Tower, Meadowlark Botanical Gardens Vienna, VA. May 2012, by Flickr (cc) / Ron Cogswell