The half-century-long standoff between democratic South Korea and the communist North has recently thawed, become fluid and dynamic. Though many challenges to peace and reunification remain, measured and hopeful changes are taking place in Pyongyang. In the past few years, the world has witnessed North Korea's drastic economic deterioration. The heart-wrenching plight of hungry and starving North Korean children has drawn international humanitarian aid to the beleaguered regime. Meanwhile, clearly anxious to earn critical foreign capital, Pyongyang has allowed expanded trade with the South. North Korea has been compelled—however reluctantly, however slowly—to open up to its Southern brethren and the international community.

Therein lie Seoul's hopes for tension reduction, peace, and reunification. The engagement policies of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung are tooled to pursue these ends by nurturing positive changes in the North and encouraging fundamental reform there. While there has been much speculation about North Korean collapse in recent years, it is unlikely to come anytime soon. The communists' airtight grip on all manner of social, economic, political, and military affairs has so far ensured their stability and may well continue to do so. Meanwhile, South Korea does not seek the North's collapse and has officially proclaimed this position; a breakdown in the North could open up military, political, and humanitarian pitfalls. It is therefore simply too dangerous to count on the North's collapse as the key to the nation's future. South Korea aims to achieve peace and reunification methodically and gradually instead. This will take time—perhaps a long time—but it will be worth the wait. And it is the only viable course to pursue.

SURVIVAL GAMES

No one thinks that peace will come easily to Korea. The road to reconciliation is a difficult one, made even more arduous by the North's propensity for brinkmanship. Pyongyang acts with apparent disregard for global public opinion and the consequences of its defiant foreign policy on its people, and always seems intent on testing the patience and nerve of other states. With Seoul and its allies having to constantly guess the real intentions of the heavily armed and inscrutable communist regime, the Korean peninsula remains a major flash point of the post-Cold War era.

In 1993 and 1994, for example, the North's menacing nuclear weapons development program posed a serious threat to stability in northeast Asia. Tension was defused only by U.S. intervention, leading to the 1994 Agreed Framework that the United States signed with North Korea. The North pledged to freeze its nuclear program in return for energy assistance and gradual improvement in political ties and trade with the United States.

Last year, however, discovery of massive North Korean underground construction at Kumchangri (thought to be related to Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions) cast a shadow on the 1994 agreement—a shadow only partly effaced by Pyongyang's recent decision to allow U.S. access to the site. And in August 1998, North Korea test-fired a medium-range missile through Japanese airspace. This sent a clear message to the world: that the North intended to remain not only a maverick communist holdout but a muscular one, with regional military power.

Despite the provocations, Pyongyang regularly calls upon Seoul, Tokyo, Washington, and other international players to supply it with food and financial assistance. North Korea's policies have come to rely primarily on threats and blackmail. The name of their game is survival.

With this in mind, there are three courses that the North can take in the future. It could open its society and implement reform. It could persist in its dogmatic pursuit of juche, the official state ideology of self-reliance. Or it could try to muddle its way along a middle path, reluctantly adjusting course from time to time to accommodate the serious challenges it faces. Course three is the one the North presently is following and seems likely to continue along.

For despite the belligerence, there are signs—though hardly dramatic—that North Korea is gradually opening up. It admits to the famine and openly appeals for international food aid. Even while undertaking submarine infiltrations into South Korean territorial waters, developing its missile, and building underground military facilities, it has managed to comply with its Agreed Framework obligations by maintaining the freeze on its nuclear facilities and by permitting U.S. access to suspected nuclear sites. North Korea continues negotiations with the United States about these and other issues—witness the recent talks in New York, completed on March 16. It seeks increased contacts and regular meetings with European governments. Although North Korean leader Kim Jong-il generally remains hidden and shrouded in secrecy, the country's leadership appears well aware of the changing global environment and the failures of its own system. These failures have been pronounced: according to the Bank of Korea, the North Korean economy has shrunk for eight consecutive years; the 6.8 percent GDP drop in 1997 was the worst since 1992. North Korea's electricity generation sank from 29.37 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) in 1989 to 19.27 billion kWh in 1997, providing less than 40 percent of its annual electricity needs and leading to a factory operation rate of under 20 percent.

Seeking to stem this tide, North Korea recently introduced some rudimentary elements of capitalism into its constitution, including limited private land ownership, state enterprise reforms, and a slight easing of internal travel restrictions. The North also signed a contract with South Korea's Hyundai Group, giving the latter a long-term license to develop a tourism complex at Mt. Kumgang.

If the regime in Pyongyang manages to prolong such reluctant adaptation, then it will be able to lengthen its life span. But without fundamental restructuring, its economy will continue to deteriorate. South Korea, meanwhile, needs to prepare itself for all contingencies.

THE ENGAGEMENT CHALLENGE

Seoul understands the North's survival game plan. The challenge, then, is to construct policies that protect the national security of the South against the North's belligerence while simultaneously coaxing the North to expand engagement with the outside world. This would expose the closed North Korean society to international "sunshine" and promote internal reform. President Kim first outlined this approach in his February 1998 inaugural speech, when he proclaimed that while South Korea will not tolerate armed provocation of any kind, it also has no intention of absorbing or undermining its neighbor. Instead, President Kim opted for reconciliation and cooperation with the North.

Seoul's constructive engagement policies aim for peaceful coexistence. The longer-term goal of unification can wait. The immediate priorities are to alleviate the human pain caused by division, to secure peace and stability, and to promote the common identity of all Koreans.

One tenet of engagement policy is the separation of economics and politics. This split allows the South's private sector to explore and capitalize on business opportunities in ways that promote openness and change in the North and bring all Koreans closer together. In this context, commerce can achieve what politics cannot, and thus it makes sense to sever the two.

Given the present level of mutual distrust and the long history of confrontation between the two Koreas, engagement will require patience and consistency to bear fruit. The policy's value, however, lies not only in the end result but also in the process. Moreover, since engagement fosters dialogue and peace, its implementation should not be swayed by occasional backsliding. Of course, individual acts of provocation (such as missile testing and underground construction) must be dealt with as firmly as any other national security threat would be. South Korea will continue to protect its borders and its people. The long-term safety and prosperity of all Koreans, however, can be assured only by securing a truly stable and lasting peace on the peninsula. Therein lies the critical importance of keeping the North engaged.

North Korea's missiles and nuclear ambitions are threats not only to the South but also to regional neighbors and the global nonproliferation regime. While there can be tactical differences among the regional countries in their responses to the North's provocations, therefore, there should be general agreement on the larger strategy for peace and stability. North Korea's nuclear program must be kept frozen by maintaining the integrity of the Agreed Framework. And responses to the North must be based on close consultation between allies.

FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS

The end of the Cold War has enabled South Korea to normalize relations with key states in East Asia. Korea's relationship with China, for example, which was initially motivated by a common interest in commercial and economic affairs, has grown into a comprehensive partnership encompassing diplomatic and political matters as well. At the current pace of expanding ties, China could replace the United States as South Korea's top trading partner within a decade; both China and South Korea benefit from this enhanced cooperation. Peace and stability on the Korean peninsula are clearly in China's interest. After all, China shares a 750-mile border with North Korea. Thus Seoul believes that Beijing will support President Kim's constructive engagement with the North.

South Korea's relations with Russia, formalized in 1990, suffered from excessive expectations on both sides and are now passing through a period of readjustment. Russia is an Asian power, however, and is destined to retain an ongoing interest in Korean affairs. Furthermore, Russia is committed to market economics, and this cannot be reversed. Thus Korea looks forward to a steady increase in Russian-Korean interaction in every field in the coming years. Korea and eastern Siberia, together with Japan and China, are poised to form a de facto economic cooperation zone early in the new century.

Between Korea and Japan, real progress has been made to close the door on the strained past and open a new one to genuine partnership. President Kim's visit to Japan last October produced agreement on the need to build popular support for greater cooperation. If achieved, the Korea-Japan partnership will be a leading force for stability and prosperity in the region as a whole.

Meanwhile, Korea-U.S. relations have grown stronger than ever. The bilateral security alliance remains the cornerstone of peace and stability in northeast Asia. With President Kim's firm commitment to democracy and open markets, the two allies are bound more closely than ever by shared values and ideals.

In the changing dynamics of the post-Cold War era, the United States has consolidated rather than diminished its position as the guarantor of peace and stability in East Asia. Most notably, the United States has engaged North Korea in dialogue over its nuclear program, missiles, and the suspicious underground site. Meanwhile, the influence of China and Russia on North Korea has decreased. Thus it is the United States, ironically, that now exerts the greatest influence on the North—at least to the extent that Pyongyang can be influenced at all by outside forces. The United States retains leverage in the form of humanitarian and energy assistance. Given the North's acute economic needs and growing isolation, this is a powerful tool indeed. Thus while understandable, frustration over North Korea's provocations should not lead the United States to disengage. Pyongyang's acts of incitement should not be met with overreaction or underreaction. They must each be dealt with using rigor and caution, not snap judgments or generalizations.

The growing maturity in its bilateral relations with each of the four surrounding powers has provided a favorable setting for South Korean engagement with the North. So has the convergence of interests among the four nations around a shared goal of stability and prosperity in northeast Asia based on market economy values. China, Japan, Russia, and the United States all have a direct interest in reducing tension on the Korean peninsula and in keeping the unpredictable North engaged. They should also recognize the bright potential for peaceful coexistence between South and North Korea. Building Korean coexistence will begin with the "sunshine" policy, which can produce concrete steps for reconciliation, such as free exchanges and travel across the demilitarized zone.

BEYOND ENGAGEMENT

Even the opening of inter-Korean free travel and exchanges will not eliminate the mutual suspicion felt between the two Koreas, or the espionage activities conducted (as was the case with the two Germanys prior to their reunification). But the North must someday accept that no amount of espionage can change a historical truth: that economic strength is the basis of strong military power. More and more, the primary determinant of a nation's might is financial. And economic strength requires openness: history has proven that free markets produce more national wealth than do command economies, and that free markets work better in democracies than in dictatorships.

It may be a long time before North Korea recognizes these truths and comes to share the same values as the South. Full reconciliation will therefore have to wait. Two divided entities can embark on the process of unification only after they reach a consensus on how to unify and how to live together afterward. A reunited Korea is thus a long-term prospect. But when it comes, the gradual and peaceful unification should be welcomed by the United States, China, Russia, and Japan, for it will defuse a dangerous flash point and create an expanded market for their goods and services.

A unified Korea will not presume to play a leading role in the global theater. It will not forget that it is a midsize regional power with limited resources. Koreans recognize that their security and prosperity depend on that of the rest of East Asia. Korea will therefore have to make every effort to promote the sense of community that is already evolving among the regional powers.

To further this process of integration, unified Korea should aspire to be non-nuclear and peaceful, limiting its armory to conventional weapons. It must respect its existing borders. Unified Korea will remain an integral part of the world economy, however, playing by global rules and standards. If managed properly, the peaceful unification of Korea will be a historic turning point, stamping out the final smoldering legacy of the Cold War.

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  • Hong Soon-young is Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade for the Republic of Korea. He is a former Ambassador to the Russian Federation and to Germany.
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