Korea: 35 years offshore from peace

TODAY is the 35th anniversary of the Korean armistice ending a war of drama and agony. ``The forgotten war,'' we call it. Yet it is less the war that has been forgotten than the peace we should long have made. Never before have Americans allowed 35 years to pass on a war's end without even a serious try at a peace settlement.

We are quick to blame North Korea for this. Yet Pyongyang seeks a peace treaty; Seoul now seeks better ties, and praiseworthily talks of behind-the-screen contact and of the need to recognize Pyongyang. Washington alone hangs back and looms increasingly as the obstacle to a settlement, not only in northern sights but in southern ones, too.

After 35 years our policy needs rejuvenation, lest we become the target of the very volatile South Korean elements who practice the freedom we came to Korea in 1945 to engender, and then, in 1950, to defend.

The underlying division of Korea remains intractable, of course. Unification cannot be the basis for a peace settlement, however tempting the idea; we had better not try. The ``political conference'' recommended (not required) by the armistice agreement was held, unsuccessfully, in 1954. It need not be held in the same form again, nor need it cleave to the same ``ultimate solution'' approach. Neither can we simply say it's the Koreans' business, not ours.

We made it our business by signing the armistice agreement when Seoul did not. The United States, as United Nations commander, is in fact legally more responsible than the South Koreans for their country's defense. We are inextricably involved. That's why we need a peace settlement: to disembarrass ourselves from responsibilities which, were the chips to fall, few Americans would relish fulfilling.

A new war in Korea under the military leadership of our four-star US commander in Seoul would bring grave domestic turmoil in its wake, certainly in Washington, perhaps now also in Seoul.

Why then does our lack of initiatives trap us in a position of perceived obstruction to peace? The reason lies not in Pyongyang, but in vested interests.

These the armistice agreement created abundantly; and for us, not for Seoul: four-star command over all ``UN Command'' forces, comprising most of the 600,000-plus Korean forces; and leadership over the military armistice commission, a responsibility we fulfill by pitting against native North Koreans at Panmunjom US rear admirals, among others, who know little of Korea or its language.

We have quietly interpreted these responsibilities as demanding nuclear weapons and major training exercises for which we provocatively pour in outside troops. Over the years, the South has outspent the North in military equipment 2 to 1, and the quality of Seoul's weapons has risen to equal or surpass the North's statistical superiority. Moreover, US capacity to ferry support into Korea has mounted, and the value of our Korea commands as perquisites has begun to exceed the military exigency of our presence.

The armistice has had all the birthdays it needs and should be replaced with a peace settlement. Such a settlement should replace the outmoded UN command with a South Korean body and establish a schedule for the reduction of the US armed presence in South Korea.

Mutual defense treaties would remain. But South Koreans would no longer be under a US general's operational control. The US defense role would shift toward naval, air, and technical backstopping under less-senior commanders.

Would such a peace settlement be feasible? We need to sound out both Pyongyang and Seoul, which has just indicated it would not object to closer relations between the US and North Korea. But the US needs to start working with a willing Roh government toward a peace settlement in Korea. Even if a full peace settlement is not yet possible, much can still be done.

The US could appoint a South Korean general as senior UN command member of the military armistice commission at Panmunjom, for instance. This step would demonstrate our confidence in President Roh Tae Woo's liberalized leadership.

And we might even consider scaling down our imperially large, lush, and envied mid-Seoul headquarters where we succeeded Japan in South Korean rule: an unhelpfully imperialistic symbolism.

Such steps would bring us closer to a peace treaty. But movement and perception of movement are becoming vital. Seoul is now unfreezing faster than Washington is. When things start rolling, let no one think we're across peace's path!

Gregory Henderson spent 40 years as a specialist on Korea for the State Department and in academe.

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