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Jewish World Review March 20, 2001 / 25 Adar, 5761

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow
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Dubious Korean alliances -- THE United States and Republic of Korea are supposed to be the closest of friends. But the summit between Presidents George W. Bush and Kim Dae Jung revealed dramatic differences in their views of the most important regional issue: North Korea. Washington should step back and let Seoul take responsibility for the peninsula's security.

The Cold War lasted far longer in East Asia than anywhere else. Mikhail Gorbachev defanged the Soviet Union; the Eastern European communist dictatorships were swept away in a revolutionary flood. China abandoned Maoism. Vietnam accommodated capitalism.

But not the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Pyongyang's hostility to the West rarely slackened. Indeed, the North's threat to build an atomic bomb pushed the United States close to war in the early 1990s. Washington finally bribed Pyongyang through the so-called Agreed Framework to put its nuclear program on ice.

Both sides have accused the other of bad faith, even though administration officials acknowledge that the North has kept its nuclear program frozen. There has been little diplomatic or economic follow-through.

Developments between the two Koreas were little better. But there was no war, either. And preventing war should be the fundamental goal of U.S. and South Korean policy. The Korean Peninsula is like a won chess end game: the allies need only play it out. No fancy combinations. It's a strategy that has largely guided President Kim, with his "sunshine policy." And it led to last year's dramatic summit between Kim and North Korea's Kim Jong Il. Still, Pyongyang hasn't capitulated.

Despite famine and isolation, it seeks to preserve its unique Stalinist system. With foreign assistance, if possible. Although Kim urged Washington to continue the Clinton administration's tentative diplomatic embrace - Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to Pyongyang last fall - President Bush demurred. The North "is a threat," he said, and any dialogue between the two nations would have to wait.

However, like so many other GOP critics of the Clinton administration's Korea policy, Bush failed to ask two critical questions: Threat to whom? Will dialogue increase or decrease the threat?

North Korea is bankrupt and starving. Its military lacks modern equipment and spare parts. Pyongyang's one-time allies, China and Russia, now have closer relations with the South. Even the North's one-time Third World friends have abandoned it. It certainly doesn't threaten America.

The United States dominates the globe, has the largest and most sophisticated military on Earth and is allied with every significant industrialized state. At most, the DPRK can foment trouble by selling weapons technology to America's few seemingly implacable adversaries - Iran, Iraq and Libya. Yet, Washington could vaporize all of them in an instant.

The North doesn't pose a threat to China or Russia. Nor even to Japan, though Japan can legitimately worry if Pyongyang develops a more significant missile arsenal. However, the DPRK's capabilities are limited and Tokyo could build any deterrent that it desires.

The only country really at risk is the South. But while the ROK is a valued friend, defending Seoul isn't the same as defending, say, Los Angeles. Especially since South Korea is fully capable of protecting itself. There is no special gravitational field that provides the northern nation with more tanks than the southern one.

The ROK possesses roughly 30 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea. The South enjoys a vast technological lead; its commercial and diplomatic ties span the globe. China and Russia have effectively abandoned Pyongyang, refusing to provide missile technology, for instance. Seoul is at risk only because it has chosen to maintain a smaller military, a choice which does not warrant Washington putting its own soldiers at risk.

The South is also the best judge of its own interest. Few South Koreans, other than a few left-wing students, have any illusions about the North. Nevertheless, most ROK citizens recognize that engagement is the best way to reduce tensions on the peninsula. And the best way, ultimately, to foster peaceful reunification.

Even a hawk like William Taylor of the consulting firm TAI, notes that positive initiatives by the United States, South Korea and Japan "have Pyongyang at least moving in desirable directions unthinkable only three years ago."

A South-North summit, reconstruction of the railroad linking the two states, family reunions, DPRK diplomatic missions around the world and more. Pyongyang could stop, and even back up. But every new step it takes makes it harder to return to policies destined to cause collapse. Every positive response by the West makes retreat less likely.

A half century of hostility from North Korea warrants the Bush administration moving forward with caution. But move forward it should.

JWR contributor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, Copley News Service