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Monday, Feb. 21, 2005

Seoul's survival hangs on U.S. restraint


LOS ANGELES -- Hostage theory in international relations can explain why a lot of things do not happen. There's no better example than the North Korean crisis. The reason for continuing to talk to the North Koreans is not that we like them; it's that we care about the South Koreans.

Some officials in the Bush administration would be happy to firebomb Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, back to before the Stone Age. It wouldn't take all that much, actually; the United States already has the power in place within that theater to do the job. But that's not going to happen, and for a very simple reason: Seoul, the sprawling capital of South Korea, is being held hostage.

The hostage-taker is the enormous army of North Korea. Seoul is a short enough distance to North Korea for the latter to turn the former into one big campfire with its vast artillery arsenals -- even if only a third of them actually work. Rockets and mortar fire would rain on the metropolis of 10 million people, many would die, and much would burn to the ground.

To be sure, if the North launches such a foolish attack, or launches one in response to a U.S. attack, the North would burn, too.

But while the North is mostly a vast wasteland -- it needs more than regime change, it needs an almost complete economic and political makeover -- the South is a comparative economic paradise. It has crawled and scraped its way out of a history of adversity to emerge as one of the top dozen economies in the world!

Just a half century ago all of Korea was a vast wasteland. It had been wasted by the murderous and unnecessary Korean War that, launched by the North, killed some 4 million Koreans, not to mention countless Americans and Chinese, who intervened on the side of the South and North, respectively.

What a difference a few decades can make: Fueled by the raw energy of hard work and the tradition-drenched focus of Confucianism, the South flowered into an awesome nation while the North remained in the prisonlike misery of totalitarian communism.

In 1960 South Korea's per capita income hovered at $100; today it stands above $10,000. Though its population is but 47 million (little more than that of California), it is today one of America's largest trading partners.

Visit Seoul sometime and see the gleaming skyscrapers and Manhattan-like rush hour. Go to the countryside and observe Korean rituals that go back three to four centuries.

The South Korean economic miracle has been all the more impressive, to be sure, because it exists side by side with the North Korean economic failure. If there ever were a laboratory demonstration of capitalism working and communism not working, it exists north and south of the 38th parallel, the artificial but extremely well-armed line that divided North from South in the 1953 armistice agreement ending the Korean War.

So what you have in South Korea, then, is one of the greatest examples of human economic engineering in world history. For the country is, notwithstanding its multitude of problems and challenges, a true world jewel. Even in this tough neighborhood of gigantic Russia, the even more economically powerful Japan and a rapidly rising China, South Korea manages to stand out.

If, somehow, North Korea could be brought back to the bargaining table and over time true peninsular detente created, presumably many among the 22 million in that "socialist paradise" would be very happy indeed to work in the South, even for drastically lower wages than the average South Korean is accustomed to. Should such a detente-driven linkage ever be established, the Korean economy, if it could again be driven by Chinese-like cheap labor, could soar to even more rarefied heights.

But for anything like this to happen, Seoul must survive so as to continue to thrive. That's why precipitous action against the North would be most unwise. Even the most trigger-happy anticommunist hawks in the Bush administration know and (presumably) accept this.

Well, let's hope so. The reason for continuing to talk with the North is that we care about the South. Simple.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is a veteran journalist who has held senior positions at Time, the Los Angeles Times and CBS. Distributed by the UCLA Media Center. Copyright Tom Plate 2005


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