Time To Leave Korea?


Last spring, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il surprised the world by agreeing to meet with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in the first North-South summit held since the division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945. Their historic encounter in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in June 2000 has initiated a thaw in relations that could lead, in time, to a confederation of the two Koreas and eventual reunification. How far and how fast the detente progresses, however, will depend in large part on whether the United States is prepared to modify its role on the peninsula, especially the size and character of its military presence there.

The conventional explanation for the North's sudden reversal is that Pyongyang was desperate for economic assistance from Seoul. North Korea does indeed want South Korean economic help, but this fact alone cannot explain the North's new turn outward. To understand the timing of the summit, and to assess whether the detente will endure, it is necessary to examine the relations not only between Pyongyang and Seoul but also between Pyongyang and Washington.

Kim Jong Il's central objective is the normalization of economic and political relations with the United States, accompanied by a peace settlement formally ending the Korean War. He needs normalization to unlock aid not only from the United States but also from Japan, western Europe, and the World Bank. Equally important, a peace settlement with Washington is needed to defuse the military standoff at the 38th parallel, where a conflict could explode at any time, bringing detente to a halt.

North Korea has been pursuing normalization in vain since 1994, when it agreed to freeze its production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. (The agreement did not address North Korea's missile program.) Pyongyang agreed to the freeze primarily because Washington pledged in return to phase out economic sanctions against the North that had been in place since the Korean War. But President Bill Clinton, faced with congressional opposition, failed to deliver on his part of the bargain. In late 1998, while continuing to honor the 1994 accord, Kim Jong Il staged a long-range missile test to force new negotiations. In response, Clinton sent former Secretary of Defense William Perry to Pyongyang to seek a broader settlement embracing both nuclear- and missile-related issues.

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