On August 15, 1974, South Korea's Independence Day, I lost my mother, then the country's first lady, to an assassin acting under orders from North Korea. That day was a tragedy not only for me but also for all Koreans. Despite the unbearable pain of that event, I have wished and worked for enduring peace on the Korean Peninsula ever since. But 37 years later, the conflict on the peninsula persists. The long-simmering tensions between North and South Korea resulted in an acute crisis in November 2010. For the first time since the Korean War, North Korea shelled South Korean territory, killing soldiers and civilians on the island of Yeonpyeong.
Only two weeks earlier, South Korea had become the first country outside the G-8 to chair and host a G-20 summit, welcoming world leaders to its capital, Seoul. These events starkly illustrated the dual reality of the Korean Peninsula and of East Asia more broadly. On the one hand, the Korean Peninsula remains volatile. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by North Korea, the modernization of conventional forces across the region, and nascent great-power rivalries highlight the endemic security dilemmas that plague this part of Asia. On the other hand, South Korea's extraordinary development, sometimes called the Miracle on the Han River, has, alongside China's rise, become a major driver of the global economy over the past decade.
These two contrasting trends exist side by side in Asia, the information revolution, globalization, and democratization clashing with the competitive instincts of the region's major powers. To ensure that the first set of forces triumphs, policymakers in Asia and in the international community must not only take advantage of existing initiatives but also adopt a bolder and more creative approach to achieving security. Without such an effort, military brinkmanship may only increase -- with repercussions well beyond Asia. For this reason, forging trust and sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula represents one of the most urgent and crucial tasks on Asia's list of outstanding security challenges.
A lack of trust has long undermined attempts at genuine reconciliation between North and South Korea. What little confidence did exist between the two countries virtually disappeared last year, after North Korea destroyed the South Korean naval ship Cheonan in March and brazenly attacked Yeonpyeong Island in November. North Korea also revealed that it had constructed a sophisticated uranium-enrichment facility, directly contravening commitments it had undertaken, most recently in the September 19, 2005, joint statement of the six-party talks, to forbid uranium enrichment and abandon its nuclear weapons program.
As one Korean proverb goes, one-handed applause is impossible. By the same token, peace between the two Koreas will not be possible without a combined effort. For more than half a century, North Korea has blatantly disregarded international norms. But even if Seoul must respond forcefully to Pyongyang's provocations, it must also remain open to new opportunities for improving relations between the two sides. Precisely because trust is at a low point these days, South Korea has a chance to rebuild it. In order to transform the Korean Peninsula from a zone of conflict into a zone of trust, South Korea should adopt a policy of "trustpolitik," establishing mutually binding expectations based on global norms.
"Trustpolitik" does not mean unconditional or one-sided trust without verification. Nor does it mean forgetting North Korea's numerous transgressions or rewarding the country with new incentives. Instead, it should be comprised of two coexisting strands: first, North Korea must keep its agreements made with South Korea and the international community to establish a minimum level of trust, and second, there must be assured consequences for actions that breach the peace. To ensure stability, trustpolitik should be applied consistently from issue to issue based on verifiable actions, and steps should not be taken for mere political expediency.
Building trust between competing nations has been accomplished before. The United States and China overcame deep mutual suspicions to establish relations in the 1970s. Egypt and Israel signed a peace accord in 1979 after a gradual process of trust-building between the two sides, and the agreement remains a linchpin of stability for the entire Middle East, even after the change in regime in Egypt earlier this year. In the 1950s, European nations overcame a half century of warfare to create what would later become the European Union.
Although Asia's cultural, historical, and geopolitical environment is unique, the continent can learn from these precedents, particularly Europe's experience. To begin with, Asian states must slow down their accelerating arms buildup, reduce military tensions, and establish a cooperative security regime that would complement existing bilateral agreements and help resolve persistent tensions in the region. In addition, they should strengthen existing multilateral regimes -- such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, a formal dialogue among 27 nations on East Asian security issues; the trilateral summits through which China, Japan, and South Korea coordinate their shared policy concerns; and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Together, these efforts would help form a more resilient Asian security network and build trust and security on the Korean Peninsula. Such endeavors will undoubtedly take time. But if North and South Korea and other Asian countries can institutionalize confidence-building measures, they will bolster the odds that economic and political cooperation can overcome military and security competition.
BRINGING PYONGYANG INTO THE FOLD
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