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Sunday, Sept. 2, 2001

Looking ahead to a reunified Korea


KOREA'S FUTURE AND THE GREAT POWERS, edited by Nicholas Eberstadt and Richard J. Ellings. University of Washington Press, 2001, 361 pp., $22.95 (paperback).

Think what you will about North Korea's Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, but the man has a gift for theater. He captivated much of the planet when he hosted South Korean President Kim Dae Jung during their historic summit in Pyongyang last year. He pulled a fast one on former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright by getting her to join him at an elaborate celebration of North Korea's military might. The topic prior to the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference in Hanoi last month was whether U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell would meet his North Korean counterpart, and then the question was why they couldn't.

Kim recently traveled across Russia to Moscow, by train no less, for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and will host Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Pyongyang next month. For the head of bankrupt, semistarving country that has exiled itself from the international community, that isn't too bad a performance.

Some say that Kim's success is the product of his skill at blackmail. Take away the nuclear threat, and he is just another tin-pot tyrant with a bad haircut and lifts in his shoes. That isn't true. The North Koreans have played the extortion card, but they would still be a focus of international attention without it: Being able to threaten its neighbors merely gives Pyongyang a few more headlines.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Korean Peninsula is the pivot upon which international relations in Northeast Asia turn, and "Korea's Future and the Great Powers" explains why. "Korean reunification is central to the structure of international relations in the region," write Michael Armacost, former U.S. ambassador to Japan, and Kenneth Pyle, professor of international relations and Asian studies at the University of Washington. Their chapter focuses on Japan's perspective, but the same thought process is at work, in varying degrees, among all the governments warily watching developments on the Peninsula.

When Tokyo-based analysts glance west, Korea is "the dagger pointed at the heart of Japan." Ballistic missiles have changed the threat environment, but Korean Peninsula affairs are still central to Japanese security concerns. This is true in ways that most people don't realize. As (ret.) Adm. Michael McDevitt explains in his chapter, "Korea is the most important factor in shaping the military mix and overall strength of U.S. forces permanently assigned in Asia. . . . The possibility of war or peace in Korea is the most significant independent variable that could precipitate change in the U.S. presence in East Asia."

It makes sense for Koreans to ask why they should host U.S. troops after unification if the North Korean threat has vanished. Japanese will ask the same question: What is the rationale for U.S. forces in Japan -- ever vigilant against attack from the North -- after reunification? U.S. planners have answers -- U.S. forces promote stability throughout the region, they are needed for other contingencies, such as a humanitarian crisis -- but they smell of desperation or denial to many observers.

McDevitt concludes, "After unification, the main role for U.S. and allied forces in East Asia will be to prevent militarily induced instability by defeating attempts to project power over the high seas or through the air. . . . antipower projection ought to be the concept of operations for forward-deployed US forces."

Filling the vacuum is critical. A theme that runs through the book is the great uncertainty -- and potential instability -- that would be created by Korean unification. Two basic options are presented: alignment with the West and nonalignment.

(A forcible reunification by the North is not even considered, although Chuck Downs, a consultant on Asia affairs, believes that the North has not abandoned the dream of unifying the Peninsula under its flag. He believes that North Korea "sees intervening periods of peace as opportunities to build up strength to meet the great revolutionary event in full readiness." His study of North Korean intentions is proof that the Cold War mentality has survived.)

China would be especially troubled by continued alignment with the U.S. Beijing wants a socialist buffer state on its border, as well as an ally in attempts to rebuff U.S. hegemony in the region. Bob Scalapino, the dean of U.S. Asia hands, argues that Beijing wants North Korea to evolve along the lines of the Chinese model: a peaceful transition toward socialism with North Korean characteristics. China wants peace on its northeastern border so it can concentrate on its own development.

Russia is less concerned with the buffer state idea, but it too prefers an independent North Korean regime that gives Moscow a chance to exercise influence in the region. Russia is pretty irrelevant, however, as its own economic troubles have left Moscow with little it can offer Pyongyang besides moral support.

A unified nonaligned Korea is considered to be an even greater cause for concern. All governments in the region worry about being forced to compete for influence, and the possibility that if Korea became nationalist and assertive it might pick fights with its neighbors -- Koreans have plenty to be aggrieved about -- and trigger an arms race, primarily with Japan. Even ostensible allies like Russia and China worry about Korean irredentism and the tug of Korean nationalism on their ethnic Korean communities.

That assumes, of course, that unification is in the works. Five or six years ago, everyone thought that North Korea's collapse was imminent. That was an unstated foundation of the Agreed Framework: Draw out the nuclear negotiations and implementation long enough, and there won't be a North Korea to worry about. Now, the consensus view is that the regime will muddle through and be with us for some time to come.

For most observers, that is probably for the best. Neighboring countries want to avoid the creation of a vacuum and the South's enthusiasm for absorbing the North has dampened considerably. The German experience has been a sobering one for South Koreans: Not only is North Korea larger than East Germany, relative to the size of the absorbing state, but the gap between North and South is larger than that between East and West Germany. In other words, the difficulties that Germany had are insignificant compared to those the two Koreas can anticipate. And South Korea's own economic troubles have only magnified the worries.

Marcus Noland, one of the leading economists on Korea, offers a grim assessment in his chapter. He believes that the cost will fall on Koreans; Asia's economic troubles mean that it is cheaper to buy assets in other parts of the region than start from scratch in North Korea. Noland says any solution to postunification ills will ultimately be a political one: There would have to be incentives to fight migration. Mass flight south would be a disaster, so full political rights would have to be given to North Koreans to keep them at home.

There are other economic issues. Noland also warns that unification is likely to create new inequality in the South. Cheap labor in the North would widen gaps between labor and capital in the South. Foreign capital could help ease the strain on South Korea but it is likely to be constrained by the lack of infrastructure as well as Korean fears of foreign exploitation. Japan is a likely contributor, but an active role by Japanese companies in the North would hit a nerve.

The bottom line is that the status quo, unsatisfactory as it may be, has a lot of support. All would like to see Pyongyang become more predictable and a lot more peaceable, but even real detente on the Peninsula has risks. The question hanging over reform in North Korea is whether any crack in the regime's hard line will prove fatal to its survival.

Brad Glosserman is director of research at Pacific Forum, CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank, and a contributing editor to The Japan Times.


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