Laying It on the Line for North Korea

Ahn Byung-joon, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul, is a visiting professor at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University

President Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young Sam agreed in November that they support the 1994 nuclear agreement with North Korea and demanded that the North take "acceptable steps to resolve the [spy] submarine incident." Now that Clinton has formed a new security team, an urgent task for the administration is to work out a common security agenda by strengthening the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

Reaffirming the goals of nuclear nonproliferation, peace and Korean unification would send a message to North Korea that it cannot continue to ignore South Korea with impunity, that it cannot implement a nuclear accord or enjoy a "soft landing" (peaceful reunification) without first building a relationship of respect. The U.S. and South Korea must prepare bitter medicine to cure the root causes of the Korean conflict.

Since the U.S. signed the "agreed framework" with North Korea in October 1994, Pyongyang has abided by a nuclear freeze and concluded other agreements to build light-water reactors to replace plutonium producing reactors. In return, the U.S. has supplied 500,000 tons of heavy oil, promised to provide two light-water reactors, which will built by South Korea, engaged North Korea in limited dialogue and provided humanitarian aid. As a result, U.S.-North Korean relations have improved but North-South Korean relations have worsened.

The North's spy submarine infiltration of South Korea in September was in violation of the armistice. The 1994 accord has encouraged the North in its refusal to deal with the South and to seek direct negotiations on a "peace agreement" with the U.S. by driving a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea.

This turn of events raises serious questions about the viability of the 1994 accord and North Korea itself. Can the framework agreement be implemented without North-South peace and dialogues? Can the U.S. alone maintain the North on life support? Can the U.S. blame only the South when it refuses to cooperate with the proposal to build the reactors and expect Seoul just to pick up the bill while the North carries out military provocation? Can the North survive without dealing with the South?

If the answers are no, the U.S. must let Pyongyang know that now. Despite its culpability in the submarine incident, Pyongyang threatened "thousandfold" retaliation against Seoul. The latter has been demanding an apology and delayed sending a technical team to Pyongyang to survey the construction site for the reactors. Yet, some high U.S. officials called on all sides to avoid provocation without distinguishing which side first provoked. As a result, the South Korean public's trust in American policy is eroding.

Against this background, public opinion in the South is pressing the government to take stronger measures against the North. With a presidential campaign in 1997, no candidate can afford to sound soft on North Korean threats.

One way to overcome this tension is to see the North Korean problem as a regional challenge, for it does pose a major threat to East Asian security. A violent change in Korea is bound to involve other major powers.

More than anything else, it is important to resurrect a sense of common purpose in the U.S.-South Korean alliance by doing away with loose talk that Seoul distrusts Washington and that the latter regards the former as its biggest headache on the peninsula.

Seoul may have been flip-flopping in implementing its North Korean policy, but its basic strategy, which Washington shares, has remained intact: to build toward nuclear nonproliferation, peace, cooperation and unification through productive dialogue with Pyongyang. Like Washington, Seoul also supports the nuclear accord and prefers a North Korean "soft landing," an orderly and peaceful transformation through reform and opening and unification by mutual consent, rather than a messy and bloody collapse and unification by absorption.

Only when the U.S. and the Republic of Korea demonstrate their shared interests and goals for peace and unification on a long-term basis will North Korea be forced to change its futile hostility and begin talks on peace and cooperation with the South.

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