June 21, 2000
To 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.
Even 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.
It 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.
The 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.
Interestingly 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.
"Peace 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."
A 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.
The 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.
The 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.
South 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.
The 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.
The apparent desire of people on both sides of the DMZ to start to end hostilities and the apparently concrete groundwork that has already been laid also suggests a certain failure of imagination and intelligence by the US government. The level of potential cooperation seems to have caught official Washington by surprise. That suggests strongly that the United States would do well to leave the details to the Koreans and avoid the temptation to be "helpful" or meddlesome.
Reducing US military and diplomatic involvement in Korea, of course, should not be interpreted as in any way downgrading or reducing the feelings of friendship and admiration most Americans feel toward Korea, let alone any weakening of economic ties. South Korea has done a remarkable job of building democratic institutions and a relatively free and prosperous marketplace. Now the North might be ready to loosen up its regime’s grip on economic activity. If anything, more trade and more warmth between the United States and Korea should be the result.
This is potentially an exciting time. Korea has been one of the world’s most potentially dangerous flashpoints for decades, complete with (almost certainly) nuclear weapons of some sort on both sides. While service in Korea has been mostly uneventful for American troops, the potential danger has been very real. As recently as a couple of years of years ago North Korea was making provocative gestures. You would think reconciliation would be cause for celebration in Washington, if the real purpose of American hegemony were to promote peace and stability.
Instead, we hear mostly caution and inertia. The keepers of the imperium cannot seem to come to grips with the idea that a garrison or outpost of US troops in a foreign land might be recalled. Instead of taking credit for the possibility of success in the project of Korean reconciliation, we hear caution fed, perhaps, by resentment that the Koreans did so much on their own without direct guidance or direction from the Great White Father in Washington.
There will be bumps along the road and reconciliation might not work. Some South Korean journalists who had been allowed to observe aspects of the summit meeting found that when they wanted to leave their hotels to walk around Pyongyang were stopped and informed that such freelance fact-gathering "would depart from the spirit of the summit." So the North is obviously still a long way from even thinking bout being an open and relatively free society.
Even so, the best bet is to let Koreans, north and south, deal with the peninsula’s future. If that gets Washington’s collective nose out of joint, so be it.
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