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Sunday, Oct. 28, 2001


Engagement or isolation?

Prospects for change on the Korean Peninsula

KOREAN SECURITY DYNAMICS IN TRANSITION, edited by Park Kyung-Ae and Kim Dalchoon. New York, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001, 209 pp., $45.00 (cloth)

The euphoria that followed the historic inter-Korean summit in June 2000 has worn off. North Korea's peek-a-boo diplomacy -- now you see us, now you don't -- has left the world wondering what has truly changed on the Korean Peninsula. The title of this book leaves no doubt that its contributors see permanent change. Frustrations notwithstanding -- and they will always be present -- the Korean Peninsula is "in transition."

The case isn't too hard to make. Kenneth Quinones, a former U.S. foreign service officer who has worked extensively on Northeast Asia, focuses on the diplomatic relationship between the two Koreas that has emerged -- one that is sometimes forgotten amid the day-to-day setbacks that dominate the headlines. "In spite of impressive obstacles, South and North Korea have been able to gradually build a dialogue that has become increasingly substantive and productive. . . . The general trend is one of shortened hiatus between periods of dialogue and longer periods of increasingly intense engagement. Each new start has built upon the accomplishments of the previous phase, gradually broadening the common ground between the two Koreas."

Just as important is the convergence of interests among the great regional powers that are also involved. The United States, China, Japan and Russia all see the Peninsula as a site for strategic cooperation rather than competition. Beijing and Moscow may pander to Pyongyang to maximize their influence, but all the concerned governments, including Seoul, share the same goals. None want to see North Korea become a declared nuclear power, none want it to go to war, nor do they want it to collapse. The optimal solution is a gradual diplomatic opening, slow economic reform, a settling of the nuclear question and a decrease in tensions on the Peninsula. That is a substantial foundation for cooperation.

The counterargument, that change is illusory, is the product of continuing questions about North Korean intentions. Gordon Flake, a Korea expert who now heads the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs, captures that sentiment nicely: "While it may indeed take two hands to clap, it is obvious which hand is in motion." Flake, like the rest of the contributors to this volume, believes that change is in the air.

The "black box" -- the veil that shrouds thinking in Pyongyang -- complicates any assessment of North Korean goals. On the one hand, they aren't too difficult to figure out: regime survival is the primary objective. But the tactics are confusing. The questions are fundamental. How committed to reform is the regime? Has it truly embraced reconciliation and abandoned the goal of unification? North Korea's arch rhetoric doesn't make analysis any easier.

What is clear is that North Korea has a unique perspective, and the distance between that worldview and that of the rest of the world doesn't make it any less convincing in Pyongyang. As Selig Harrison notes in his chapter, the West may think that North Korean fears of a U.S. attack are absurd, but the fears are real, nevertheless. His reading of the diplomatic record -- and he has served as a back channel, relaying messages between Pyongyang and Washington for decades -- shows that the U.S. has missed (or ignored) several opportunities to make progress with North Korean. That, when combined with the U.S. penchant for making nuclear threats during the 1950s, makes North Korean paranoia understandable. Or at least puts it in context, and grasping context and then using it to devise workable solutions is what diplomacy is all about.

The North's economic troubles and the convergence of interests among concerned governments highlight another critical element of the regional dynamic: North Korea's shrinking leverage. On the international level, the end of the Cold War has denied Pyongyang its principle playing card: support from a fraternal, sympathetic government (or the prospect of playing one communist government off another). China is still a socialist country -- nominally at least -- but ties between the two have stretched and Beijing balances its interests in Pyongyang against far more substantial economic ties with Seoul. The nuclear card is just that: a device to keep the U.S. focused on relations with Pyongyang. Without it, North Korea is just another failed state.

Internally, Pyongyang has lost the competition with the South. It cannot match the standard of living that Seoul has provided its people. The result, as several contributors argue, is that the North Korean government has to emphasize its "juche" (independence) ideology. It may be absurd for a country dependent on international aid to crow about the importance of a guiding doctrine that stresses self-reliance, but that is about all Pyongyang can offer its people. As editor Park Kyung-Ae points out, North Korea's only comparative advantage is ideology.

We like to think this is a post-ideological era, but not in North Korea. If legitimacy is all Pyongyang has, then it becomes a real restraint on the North's room for maneuver.

That also explains the failure of the two Koreas to make progress on the issue of military relations. (Don't overlook that key adjective in the title: This book is about security dynamics.) North Korea's bloated military may be a paper tiger, but it is a big one nonetheless. Confidence-building measures don't make a lot of sense when no confidence exists and when a government fears that transparency would expose its weaknesses.

Some of the doubts about the reality of "progress" on the Korean Peninsula will be put to rest when the two governments start talking directly about security and military matters. As always, the test will be the North's willingness to make real changes. The North will demand that its negotiating partners move first, and, as can be expected from a country with few cards to play, it will hold out for the best possible deal till the very last moment.

Unfortunately, that strategy has served Pyongyang poorly in recent months. It waited too long to make a deal with former U.S. President Bill Clinton and now faces a decidedly less accommodating administration in Washington. The same window is closing - and it's just about closed - in Seoul as South Korean disappointment with the Sunshine Policy mounts and the country begins the countdown to next year's presidential ballot. The danger now is that Korean Peninsula dynamics may again begin to move -- but back toward the tension and suspicion that have dominated relations throughout most of the postwar era.

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

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