The Fractured Power
How to Overcome Tribalism
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.
The resulting agreement on September 17, 1999, provided for the relaxation of "most" U.S. sanctions in exchange for a temporary North Korean moratorium on missile testing. North Korea honored this moratorium, but once again the White House, still under pressure from Congress, failed to ease the sanctions, many of which can be abolished by executive order. Instead, the United States upped the ante, demanding a comprehensive missile agreement that would go beyond a testing moratorium to a complete ban on the development, production, and deployment of all missiles with a range over 180 miles (i.e., not only long- and medium-range missiles but also some short-range ones).
It was only after U.S.-North Korean normalization negotiations ended in a deadlock on March 18, 2000, that Kim Jong Il accepted Kim Dae Jung's long-pending summit proposal. Faced with what he considered unacceptable U.S. terms, the North Korean leader used summitry with the South both to increase his bargaining leverage with Washington and to jump-start economic interchange with Seoul. As he had hoped, the summit broke the deadlock, giving Clinton the political cover he needed to begin carrying out his pledge to reduce sanctions. This in turn made it politically possible for Kim Jong Il to neutralize North Korean hard-liners skeptical about normalization and to send his deputy, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, to Washington in October 2000, setting the stage for U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit to Pyongyang soon thereafter.
The initial results of the June 2000 summit have been encouraging. Economic links across the 38th parallel are growing. Cooperative measures to rebuild a North-South railroad link are proceeding on schedule. Each side says it will no longer seek to conquer or absorb the other, and both are formally committed to the goal of a loose confederation that would lay the groundwork for eventual reunification. Still, a long tug of war over the terms of coexistence lies ahead.
The most intractable issue blocking a stable rapprochement is how to wind down the military tensions at the 38th parallel. This issue involves the United States directly because its 37,000 military personnel and 100 late-model combat aircraft stationed in Korea, together with its "nuclear umbrella" over the South, tilt the North-South military balance in favor of Seoul. Pyongyang argues that to achieve an equilibrium at a lower level of military deployment, it would not be enough for the North and the South to negotiate the reduction, redeployment, and restructuring of their own armed forces. The United States would also have to make major changes in the nature and role of its forces in Korea.
Although the United States says its forces in Korea are meant to deter another invasion by the North, Pyongyang sees them as a genuine security threat, particularly because the technological superiority of U.S. and South Korean aircraft leaves North Korea vulnerable to a preemptive strike. On his return from Pyongyang in September 1999, Perry was asked why North Korea is seeking to develop long-range ballistic missiles. "I believe their primary reason ... is deterrence," he replied. "Whom would they be deterring? They would be deterring the United States. We do not think of ourselves as a threat to North Korea, but I truly believe that they consider us a threat to them."
President Clinton called off his projected trip to North Korea in January largely because he could not pin down a missile agreement in advance. In negotiations during and after Albright's visit, Pyongyang offered to discuss the terms for freezing the development of its long-range Taepodong missile, which would be able to reach the United States if some major technical problems were resolved.1 But it balked at the U.S. demand that it end the production and deployment of its existing medium-range Nodong missile, which already can reach Japan and U.S. bases there. North Korea is seriously concerned that Japan might develop nuclear weapons and wants to retain the Nodong both to maximize its leverage in dealing with Tokyo and to deter any future U.S. military involvement in Korea. In contrast to the Nodong, the Taepodong is an expendable bargaining chip, since making it operational would require money and foreign help that Pyongyang does not have.
North Korea has offered to discuss the pullback of its forward-deployed conventional forces at the 38th parallel and the complete dismantling of its missile and nuclear capabilities -- but only if the United States agrees to a peace treaty ending the Korean War, followed by wide-ranging arms control negotiations in which the redeployment of U.S. and South Korean forces and possible U.S. withdrawals would also be considered. If the United States were willing to reconsider the nature and role of its forces in Korea, the North might well accept a continuing U.S. ground presence for a transitional period of a decade or more.
So far, however, the United States has refused to entertain such proposals for change. Pentagon officials contend that U.S. forces are needed in Korea more than ever, not only to counter the threat of North Korean aggression but also to help stabilize Northeast Asia.
But the North is no longer likely to attempt a forcible reunification, as it did in 1950. Its former allies Russia and China oppose such an adventure and are now playing the role of honest brokers between the North and the South. Moreover, the North's economic difficulties have severely eroded its military readiness and its ability to sustain a protracted war. Pyongyang's forward deployments of tanks and artillery are intended to help deter a U.S. preemptive strike, not to prepare for another invasion.
As for the rationale that U.S. forces help "stabilize" Northeast Asia, the Pentagon's plans to use Korea as a base for military operations elsewhere in Asia could well aggravate regional tensions. Beijing has already warned that it would oppose the presence of U.S. forces in Korea after reunification, expressing particular concern that they might be used to conduct operations in Taiwan.
In part, Washington's resistance to a security dialogue with Pyongyang is rooted in the deep distrust that many Americans feel toward the totalitarian North Korean regime. But vested interests are also a factor. Defense contractors and political leaders pushing a U.S. missile defense system frequently exaggerate present and potential North Korean missile capabilities. The North Korean threat is the principal justification for the size of the U.S. military presence in the Pacific, and if this threat seemed to be fading, it would be difficult to sustain political support for such a costly presence ($42 billion per year) in the name of a vaguely defined regional "stabilizing" mission.
In South Korea, as in the United States, opposition to compromise is driven by a politically powerful military-industrial complex, which includes 83 defense contractors producing 119 types of defense equipment in 130 factories, many of them closely tied to U.S. defense firms. Kim Dae Jung is also constrained by his people's lingering memories of North Korean aggression in the Korean War. Suspicions of the North's intentions are relentlessly manipulated by Kim's powerful political opponents, who belittle him for not extracting what they consider adequate concessions from Pyongyang in return for South Korean largesse. As South Korea's economic difficulties have worsened in recent months, Kim Dae Jung's popularity has plummeted, and his North Korea policy is increasingly under attack.
American policy is based on the assumption that North Korea's economic difficulties will eventually force it to make unilateral military concessions. In return for economic help and the normalization of diplomatic relations, Washington wants Pyongyang not only to give up the option of developing both medium- and long-range missiles but also to accept more intrusive inspections of its nuclear program that go beyond those envisaged in the 1994 nuclear freeze agreement. But the United States, for its part, has not yet fulfilled its own pledge in Article Three, Section One, of that agreement to give "formal U.S. assurances [to North Korea] against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the United States."
The assumption that economic incentives alone will get North Korea to make one-sided security concessions ignores two factors: the depth of Pyongyang's U.S.-focused security concerns and its limited but significant economic progress since the famine of 1995-96. Although North Koreans are still living hand to mouth, famine conditions now exist only in scattered areas, thanks primarily to American and Chinese food aid. China is also providing enough coal to keep key factories and power plants operating.
REFORM BY STEALTH
Conventional wisdom says that Kim Jong Il must pay whatever military price is necessary to get foreign economic help, or else his regime will collapse. According to the prevailing American assessment, his Marxist-Leninist ideology precludes the economic reforms necessary for survival, and in any case, he dares not risk reforms because popular discontent would erupt once the winds of change blew in from the outside. But increasingly, Kim is cautiously breaking loose from his ideological shackles, pursuing a carefully calibrated policy that might be described as reform by stealth.
During the famine, for example, the government's food procurement and distribution machinery broke down, and private farm markets mushroomed in the North Korean countryside. Instead of closing them down by force, Kim chose to look the other way. In doing so, he sided with reform-minded officials who argued that private markets not only would ease the food shortage but would stimulate a broader movement toward an unofficial market economy. Since then, foreign food-aid administrators have reported direct evidence of more than 300 private markets dealing in consumer goods as well as farm produce. The new markets, they say, have coaxed food into circulation that farmers would otherwise have held back from government procurement officers. To avoid provoking orthodox ideologues, Kim has quietly promoted this significant change in North Korean economic life without formally acknowledging or legitimizing it.
The fact that Kim has permitted more than 150 foreign food-aid administrators to live in Pyongyang and monitor distribution in 163 of the country's 210 counties is dramatic evidence that he does not share the xenophobic, insular attitudes of the old guard in the Workers Party. When foreign advisers have suggested innovations in agricultural policy, he has signaled quick acceptance, overriding bureaucratic opposition.
During Albright's visit to Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il told her that he has been studying alternative economic systems for North Korea, referring specifically to "the Swedish model." But how rapidly he can move in the direction of reform is uncertain, given the resistance from the old guard and his own desire to maintain political control. Before making basic changes in the domestic economic structure, he is likely to continue to try to achieve reform indirectly, as China did, by opening up the system to foreign aid, trade, and investment ties, especially with South Korea. Far from fearing the winds of change from outside, he is confident that he can harness them to serve his purposes.
At some point, economic help from Washington, Tokyo, and international financial institutions will be necessary for sustained economic progress in North Korea. The loss of its Cold War-era Soviet and Chinese subsidies has left an eroding infrastructure that can be revitalized only with large-scale foreign capital and technology.
Looking ahead to expanded foreign business ties and membership in international financial institutions, therefore, Kim Jong Il has assigned North Korean officials to study international law and the workings of capitalism in training programs arranged by the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program. North Korea has also formally requested membership in the Asian Development Bank (adb) -- a bid that has been supported by South Korea but blackballed by the United States and Japan. At the time, the United States said that "the North Korean regime is fundamentally incompatible with the principles of institutions such as the adb" and pointed to the fact that the country is still on the State Department's list of states sponsoring terrorism.
Many observers believe that even with foreign economic aid, North Korea may soon collapse. The CIA's director, George Tenet, warns of "sudden, radical, and possibly dangerous change" that could come "at any time." General Thomas A. Schwartz, commander of U.S. forces in Korea, predicts "social chaos threatening the existence of the regime itself," leading to "the devastation of civil war." Dismissing this view, Eason Jordan, president of CNN International Networks, who has visited the North nine times, told a Harvard audience, "When you hear about starvation in North Korea, a lot of very level-headed people think, 'there is no way that a country like that can survive.' ... Well, I'm here to tell you with absolute certainty those guys will tough it out for centuries just the way they are."
Well, maybe not for centuries -- and certainly not just the way they are. For the next several decades, however, as the North and South move closer together, the possibility of a collapse appears increasingly improbable. The North Korean state is likely to survive -- even if its communist system or Kim Jong Il do not.
Unlike his father, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il is not a charismatic leader with absolute personal authority. To contain ideologues in the Workers Party who oppose his reform ideas, he has forged an alliance with key military leaders, who have long chafed at party domination and saw an opportunity after the death of the "Great Leader" to strengthen their position in the Pyongyang power structure. For all practical purposes, North Korea has had a bloodless military coup: Kim Jong Il has collaborated with the armed forces to create a new constitutional structure in which the military supplants the Workers Party as the focus of political authority and provides his personal power base. For the present, the armed forces need Kim Jong Il as a legitimizing symbol of continuity with the era of his revered father. But even if he eventually outlives his usefulness, they will continue to provide the power base for his successor.
Kim Jong Il appears to be well protected against a major coup. He has installed brothers of his sister's husband, Chang Song Taek, in three of the most sensitive positions in the power structure. The eldest brother, General Chang Sung Woo, commands one of the army corps in control of Pyongyang; the second eldest, General Chang Sung Kil, is political commissar of another corps in the capital; and the youngest, General Chang Song U, is director of the Political Department in the Ministry of Public Security. The only known case of an attempted uprising against the regime was a localized revolt in 1995 by elements of the Sixth Corps in the remote North Hamgyong province, the area most seriously affected by the famine.
Kim has rewarded his loyal military supporters by giving them profitable positions in his personal network of conglomerates and trading companies. Powerful generals now control the Mabong, Rungra 888, and Kunsung trading firms, which handle most of North Korea's illicit opium trade as well as commercial exports of zinc, anthracite, gold, and other mineral resources. If the danger of a collapse exists, it lies in the possibility of conflicts within the armed forces over the spoils of power, leading to destructive factionalism. Scenarios of a popular revolt generated by economic privation are much less plausible.
This is true partly because Kim presides over a ruthless totalitarian system and is modulating his economic reforms carefully to minimize their political impact. Even when outside influences begin to creep in, however, the North Korean political fabric is likely to prove resilient for deeply rooted historical reasons. One often-cited factor is the powerful Confucian tradition of political centralization and obedience to authority, which dates back more than six centuries in Korea and was skillfully appropriated by Kim Il Sung. But North Koreans are more than obedient: six years after the death of the "Great Leader," most of them are still fervent supporters of a nationalist ideology often called "Kim Il Sungism." The Kim Il Sung mystique grew initially out of his role as a guerrilla leader fighting Japanese colonial rule, but its durability lies primarily in vivid historical memories of shared sacrifices under his leadership during the Korean War.
The collapse of North Korea would send millions of refugees across the 38th parallel and necessitate expensive reconstruction there, further burdening the South's already-troubled economy. The underlying purpose of Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" toward North Korea is to forestall such an outcome by helping Pyongyang mitigate its economic problems through cooperation with the South. Over time, Kim Dae Jung argues, North-South economic links will soften political and military antagonisms and accelerate economic reform in the North. Even his critics agree that the lesson of the German reunification experience is that a sudden absorption would be much more costly for the South than a gradual, structured process of confederation that would facilitate the economic rehabilitation of the North before reunification.
Even before the June 2000 summit, business ties between the North and the South had been rapidly multiplying through subcontracting arrangements under the "sunshine policy." Average wages in the South are ten times higher than those in the North. For many South Korean companies still recovering from the fiscal crisis of 1997, especially small enterprises, subcontracting offers a safe and easy way to make quick profits in the North without the risks of equity investment. Today, more than 200 South Korean companies have subcontracting links with North Korean manufacturers. The South Korean partners provide raw materials and specialized equipment and pay for the finished products in dollars. The North Korean factories turn out consumer goods such as apparel, golf bags, and TV sets, mostly for the South Korean market and partly for export to Europe, China, and Russia.
South Korean entrepreneurs like these arrangements because they preclude the managerial headaches that would come with direct investment. It is the North Korean factory managers who have to worry about power shortages, haphazard transportation, and the low productivity of their workers. The North Korean government likes subcontracting because it provides jobs and foreign exchange without a politically sensitive influx of South Korean managers.
At the same time, Kim Jong Il is seeking selected equity investments, such as the one recently authorized at Nampo in which Italian carmaker Fiat and a South Korean partner plan to make 10,000 cars a year by 2003 for the Chinese market. He has also started to negotiate investment guarantees and double-taxation agreements with Seoul in hopes of attracting big investments in infrastructure. Emulating China, he is setting up special investment zones where investors would get preferential tax treatment and easy access to energy sources and transportation. Hyundai has agreed to develop one of these zones at Kaesong, and others are planned for Nampo and Wonsan. Barring conflicts between Seoul and Pyongyang over the ground rules for these zones, they could lead to a massive influx of South Korean investment within the next decade.
The potential success of North-South economic cooperation will depend to a great extent on whether the United States and Japan normalize relations with the North and encourage international financial institutions to support its reconstruction. South Korea alone does not have the resources necessary for the large-scale infrastructural investments needed by the North, especially those required to overcome a serious energy shortage. One of the cooperative projects most important to Seoul -- costly natural gas pipelines originating in Siberia and crossing through the North to the South -- would require multilateral aid, as well as support from U.S. and Japanese oil companies operating in Russia. These companies keep a close eye on U.S. policy and thus regard North Korea as verboten territory.
The pace and magnitude of North-South economic cooperation will also be governed by whether military tensions are relaxed at the 38th parallel, since many potential South Korean investors are not fully convinced that a military danger no longer exists.
LET'S MAKE A DEAL
Nearly half a century after the 1953 cease-fire, the Korean War has not formally ended. The 1953 Armistice has yet to be replaced with a peace settlement because Washington, Pyongyang, and Seoul are bogged down in a procedural impasse that masks more fundamental issues. This stalemate must be resolved in order to move toward the normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations, defuse military tensions at the 38th parallel, and negotiate a comprehensive missile agreement.
The signatories to the 1953 Armistice were North Korean and Chinese generals and U.S. General Mark W. Clark, representing the United Nations Command, which provided the multilateral umbrella for U.S. intervention. Syngman Rhee, then president of South Korea, had wanted to continue fighting, and thus the South refused to sign.
What North Korea wants today is a bilateral peace treaty with the United States to replace the 1953 truce. Under the terms of the U.S.-South Korean alliance, the American commander of the U.S.-South Korean Combined Forces Command has operational control over South Korean forces during wartime. In Pyongyang's eyes, this makes Washington its main adversary and thus a necessary signatory to a peace treaty.
The United States and South Korea, however, want a treaty between the two Koreas -- an untenable position, since the South not only refused to sign the original armistice but actively tried to thwart it. Washington and Seoul now argue that the South should be treated as a legal party to the armistice -- and thus eligible to sign a treaty replacing it -- because South Korea was one of the 16 countries that fought under the U.N. Command. But since the other 15 countries that fought under the U.N. Command are not envisaged as signatories to a potential peace treaty, this argument collapses immediately.
An equally flimsy argument for treating South Korea as a signatory is that Rhee did eventually agree not to disrupt the armistice. But he gave this promise to President Dwight Eisenhower, not North Korea -- and only in return for a U.S.-South Korea mutual security treaty and a cornucopia of economic and military aid that has since totaled some $22 billion. (In response, Pyongyang signed a mutual security treaty with China, which is still in force, and one with Russia, which has now been phased out.)
As for the United States, Washington contends that it was not a party to the 1953 agreement because Clark, although a U.S. general, signed on behalf of the U.N. Command, not the United States. But since its inception, the U.N. Command has been multilateral only in name. In his memoirs, former U.N. Secretary-General Trygvie Lie bitterly criticized the United States for blocking his efforts to establish U.N. oversight over the command's operations. For more than two decades, the command has had no military functions and has been little more than a fig leaf for what is now a unilateral U.S. commitment to the South.
The insistence of the United States that it was not a party to the armistice is governed by political, not legal, considerations. At bottom, it reflects the Pentagon's fear that the normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations could threaten the future of the U.S. military presence in Korea. When and if Washington is ready to normalize relations with Pyongyang, the fact that Clark signed as U.N. commander need not be an insuperable legal obstacle. Patrick Norton, former legal counsel to the State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, has argued persuasively that a direct U.S. role in the peace treaty would "clearly be appropriate" in light of its "direct command role in the fighting itself, and in light of its intimate political and military involvement in the maintenance of the armistice."
To expedite a settlement, North Korea has proposed a stopgap "peace agreement" with the United States that would open the way for the normalization of relations and negotiations on the reduction of military tensions without waiting for the conclusion of a formal peace treaty. In a statement on June 16, 1998, Pyongyang offered to discuss "the discontinuation of our missile development after a peace agreement is signed with the United States and the U.S. military threat completely removed." North Korean diplomats emphasized that the use of the word "agreement" in place of "treaty" was no accident.
A stopgap peace agreement makes sense as a way to break the procedural impasse over how to end the Korean War. Looking ahead, a workable legal formula to replace the 1953 truce would consist of two treaties: one between Washington and Pyongyang and another between Washington and Beijing. For political and military rather than legal reasons, these treaties should be accompanied by a parallel North-South peace accord unrelated to the armistice. For example, Pyongyang and Seoul could convert the non-aggression clause of their 1991 "Basic Agreement" into an explicit declaration that the Korean War is over.
Like the use of the phrase "peace agreement" in its June 1998 statement, North Korea's reference to the U.S. "military threat" rather than the U.S. "military presence" was an important signal that Washington has ignored so far. North Korea has indicated that it is not opposed to the American military presence in Korea as such, but to its continuation in the context of hostile U.S.-North Korean relations. Pyongyang wants Washington to play the role of honest broker between the North and the South, as Moscow and Beijing do now, and to adjust its military mission accordingly.
As early as 1995, North Korean First Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju and leading generals had proposed a peace plan in which the role of U.S. forces in Korea would no longer be limited to defending the South. Instead, the United States would help stabilize North-South relations by joining a new trilateral "Mutual Security Commission" consisting of North Korean, South Korean, and U.S. generals. The current U.S.-South Korea and China-North Korea mutual security treaties would remain in force. The new commission, Kang said shortly before the June 1998 statement, "would help to prevent any threat to the peace, whether from the South against the North or the North against the South" -- a theme that has since been repeated in numerous North Korean declarations.
The Mutual Security Commission would phase out the U.N. Command and the Military Armistice Commission created in 1953, both of which are regarded as symbols of an adversarial relationship. The new commission would continue to monitor the peace at the 38th parallel, as the Armistice Commission now does. What would change is that the United States would be directly represented in the Mutual Security Commission, not through a U.N. Command that now exists only on paper. The commission would also provide a new forum for negotiating tension reduction and arms control measures.
In rejecting North Korean proposals for ending the Korean War, the United States and South Korea insist that the armistice machinery cannot be dismantled until the North first proves its good faith by agreeing to tension reduction and arms control measures, such as pulling back some or all of its forward-deployed forces and artillery. Pyongyang responds that this would be putting the cart before the horse and that military antagonists cannot be expected to lower their defenses while hostilities continue.
AN HONEST BROKER
Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il find themselves trapped in an increasingly constricting cycle of mutual dependence. Each faces domestic opposition that prevents him from making concessions to the other, and each wants the other to make the first move on difficult issues. Only the United States can break the cycle. By shifting to the role of honest broker, Washington could help accelerate the pace of post-summit progress and strengthen the moderates in both capitals.
Such a shift would require the United States to accept the reality that North Korea is not on the verge of collapse and to abandon its insistence on a missile deal as a precondition for normalization. Kim Dae Jung achieved his breakthrough with Pyongyang precisely because he did not put difficult military issues first. Similarly, the Bush administration could improve the prospects for successful negotiations on conventional force deployments, nuclear weapons, and missiles by giving priority to ending the Korean War and normalizing relations.
A recent significant breakthrough in normalization negotiations was the joint declaration made by Vice Marshal Jo and Secretary Albright last October 12 that neither government would "have hostile intent toward the other." Having dipped its toes into the water, Washington should now take the plunge by concluding peace treaties with Pyongyang and Beijing, or at least the stopgap peace agreement proposed by the North in 1998. The replacement of the armistice machinery with the proposed Mutual Security Commission could then follow, opening the way for trilateral negotiations on conventional arms control and a parallel dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington on issues related to missiles and nuclear weapons.
As an honest broker, the United States would have to adopt a balanced posture between the North and the South in the trilateral commission and be prepared to make tradeoffs involving U.S. forces. For example, to get North Korea to withdraw its forward-deployed tanks and artillery, the United States might have to withdraw its Apache attack helicopters and some or all of its combat aircraft deployed in Korea, which Pyongyang finds more threatening than U.S. ground forces. South Korea's air force, with its 520 advanced fighter aircraft, including 162 U.S.-supplied F-16s and 240 F-5s and F-15s, would still have a significant edge over Pyongyang's larger but antiquated MiG force, much of which is in disrepair and often grounded due to fuel shortages.
To get North Korea to end or curtail its missile development, the United States would have to combine military concessions, such as the possible withdrawal of combat aircraft, with economic incentives. In addition to further relaxing sanctions and continuing to provide large-scale food aid, it should give top priority to negotiating the removal of North Korea from the State Department's terrorist list so that World Bank and adb aid can get underway. Similarly, to convince North Korea to phase out the deployment of existing Nodong missiles, Japan would have to offer a large financial aid package as part of its own normalization agreement with North Korea.
To induce North Korea both to dismantle its nuclear facilities as part of the 1994 freeze agreement and to accept tightened nuclear inspections that would go beyond the terms of the agreement, the United States would have to fulfill its own commitments under the accord. First, the U.S.-sponsored Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization would have to complete two promised civilian nuclear reactors that are now years behind schedule. More important, the United States would have to honor Article Three, Section One, of the agreement by formally assuring North Korea against the threat or use of nuclear weapons. For such a pledge to be consistent with its security commitment to South Korea, the United States would have to obtain a six-power agreement committing China, Russia, Japan, and the two Koreas to not manufacture, use, or deploy nuclear weapons on the peninsula.
Looking ahead, as arms control negotiations proceed, North-South tensions decline, and the movement toward confederation gains momentum, the United States should accompany its denuclearization initiatives with a broader effort to progress from arms control to the complete neutralization of Korea as an arena of conventional military conflict. Washington should offer to withdraw its remaining forces from Korea if Beijing, Moscow, and Tokyo will join in a formal pledge to not introduce military forces into the peninsula in the future. The United States and China would then simultaneously terminate their mutual security treaties with Seoul and Pyongyang.
In the absence of such an initiative, the United States is likely to find itself on a collision course with both China and an increasingly nationalistic Korea. Beijing is tolerant of U.S. forces in a divided Korea, but a post-reunification U.S. presence on its borders would be a red flag. Korea would be a continual focus of tensions not only between China and the United States but also between China and Japan. In Chinese eyes, if there is no longer a North Korean threat, the only plausible U.S. rationale for a continued presence there would be the containment of China through the closer integration of U.S. military operations in Korea and Japan. Indeed, many U.S. strategic thinkers have openly advocated a post-reunification alliance between the United States, Korea, and Japan. China and Japan have clashed over Korea throughout history, and such an alliance would rekindle old animosities.
Even now, in the new atmosphere generated by the June 2000 summit, more and more South Koreans are calling for a greatly reduced U.S. presence. Far from stabilizing Northeast Asia and serving U.S. interests, the indefinite continuation of the American presence in its current form is more likely to stimulate anti-American feelings and make Korea, once again, the vortex of regional conflict that it was a century ago.
1 The CIA estimates that the Taepodong I tested in 1998, if successfully developed, could deliver to Alaska or Hawaii a "light payload" of 20 or 30 kilograms -- suitable for chemical or biological weapons, but not for a nuclear warhead, which would weigh at least 1,00o kilograms. A later model believed to be on the drawing board could carry a bigger payload, up to several hundred kilograms, to the continental United States.