be sure, viewing last week’s meeting between President Kim Dae jung
of South Korea and Kim Jong il, the dictator of North Korea as historic,
heartening and a possible breakthrough for peace must be somewhat
conditional. Mutual hostility stretching over 50 years cannot be
erased in a day or a week. Anything resembling a reunification would
be expensive to the South, whose economy (while clearly more vibrant
by orders of magnitude than the North’s) is not as strong as once
it seemed, and the possibility of some devious ploy by the North
cannot be ruled out entirely.
given those and other caveats, however, it seems likely that the
prospect for reconciliation, a cessation or reduction in active
hostility and perhaps reunification on the Korean peninsula is more
advanced than most outside observers had believed. After downplaying
any talk of specifics before the meetings, the two Kims agreed to
arrange reunions of families separated by the Korean War that began
some 50 years ago, and Kim Jong IL has agreed to visit the South
Korean capital, Seoul. Numerous South Korean industrialists and
businesspeople accompanied the South Korean leader on the trip with
the idea of exploring the possibilities of investment in the North.
is unlikely such agreements would have been announced during the
meetings if there had not been at least preliminary agreement in
advance. That suggests a higher level of mutual cooperation between
the two Koreas than most outside observers had suspected. It also
suggests that the numerous problems that will be entailed in reducing
hostilities and/or increasing cooperation would be best left to
the Koreans themselves. They have the most at stake, after all.
And they have shown at least based on events so far that they are
quite capable of handling their problems, if not perfectly, at least
better than any outside power would be likely to do.
most conspicuous outside power in the equation, of course, is the
United States, which has maintained U.S. troops in South Korea since
the end of hostilities in the Korean War and has 37,000 troops there
now. Those troops have been superfluous except as a tripwire to
ensure US involvement in any future hostilities for years now. South
Korea, should the need arise, is perfectly capable of defending
itself and has been for a long time.
but not all that surprisingly, the most conspicuous doubts about
the possibility of reconciliation came not from the peninsula but
from the boardrooms of the spiritual keepers of the empire. "Anyone
who thinks the ‘Great Leader’ has had a change of heart," quoth
the Wall Street Journal editorial page, referring to North
Korea’s Kim Jong IL, "has only to look at his record during
which the North has continued developing its offensive missile program
and spreading that technology abroad. There is ample room for skepticism.
won’t take up permanent residency in Korea until there are better
indications that Pyongyang intends to reform itself. Until then,
the security arrangements that have kept the peace for five decades
should remain in place."
IT REALLY US TROOPS?
number of assumptions behind such comments deserve to be questioned,
but the main one is that without US troops in place for the last
50 years either war or conquest would have been likely, perhaps
even inevitable. The South and the North were on something approaching
even terms back in the early 1950s, but since then the South has
grown enormously in almost every way that counts.
South now has about twice the population of the North and about
30 times the GDP, a large technological lead that is likely to make
its economic progress in the near future even more impressive. Russia
used to back North Korea, as it did during the Korean war, and Vladimir
Putin did visit recently. But these days Russia is shipping weapons
to South Korea to pay off its debts. China is much more interested
in reconciliation than in backing the North on some kind of foray
against the South. Without any clear promise of help from powerful
allies, North Korea bankrupt and starving more closely resembles
a regime struggling to survive than one that poses an imminent threat.
presence of US troops has little if anything to do with the correlation
of forces on the Korean peninsula. One might make an argument that
it was important to have US troops there for a period following
the cessation of hostilities. But with the explosive economic growth
in South Korea (most of which came after the US cut off economic
"aid" and left Korea to make it on its own steam or fail)
they are more than a bit superfluous. They are still there more
out of habit and inertia than out of military or strategic necessity.
Korean President Kim Dae Jung received a hero’s welcome in Seoul
for taking the first step toward reconciliation, and an official
South Korean government note stated publicly that it is possible
to "chase away the fear of war from our land." In that
context, American troops are starting to look even more like a complication
rather than a shield. It is time to start making preliminary plans
to remove them from a country that, from the perspective of core
US national security interests, is not central to national defense.
South Korean President Kim Dae Jung even mentioned that he discussed
the North’s missile arsenal, a reasonably legitimate concern for
the United States, with the North’s leader, making it clear to him
that the missiles could be a stumbling block to reconciliation.
United States has already moved to eliminate some of the economic
sanctions imposed on the North during the Korean war. To be sure,
some will interpret such action a "reward" to a regime
that might yet prove dangerous. But the sanctions should have been
eliminated long ago anyway (given that economic penetration is a
more effective way than sanctions to undermine a dictatorship),
and in fact North Korea’s recent actions deserve concrete recognition.