Progress Possible in Korea, With Push From US

The US and South Korea should offer the North aid and trade if it agrees to an arms-control accord

Is the mini-cold war on the Korean peninsula finally beginning to end?

Pyongyang has recently cooperated in the search for United States MIAs, released an American student who had entered North Korean territory illegally, indicated a willingness to acknowledge wrongdoing in sending a submarine into South Korean territory, and displayed some restraint in its missile-development programs. Also, the 1994 nuclear-reactor deal, which severely curtails the North's ability to produce weapons-usable fissile material, remains on track.

More fundamental progress may be possible, but it will require a major US initiative. Yet for too long, American officials have tended to pay attention to the security situation on the Korean peninsula only when crises forced them to. Emphasis by outgoing Secretary of State Warren Christopher and President Clinton on the submarine incursion during their recent trips to Asia is a case in point.

This approach provides us with insufficient leverage over Pyongyang and allows North Korea to keep playing the dangerous brinkmanship games it knows best. This must change. Despite the limited prospects for immediate success, the US and South Korea should offer Pyongyang significant economic aid and trade if it agrees to an arms-control accord requiring deep cuts in its heavy conventional weaponry. Despite the North's militarism, history of terrorism and assassination, and heavy-handed control over its own people, there is little to lose from attempting a hard-headed policy of dtente.

Some might ask, why help North Korea when it is down? Why not squeeze it until it capitulates? The answer is that we have far more to fear from a desperate regime than from a modest recovery of the backward North Korean economy, now only one-twentieth the size of the South's.

By agreeing to deep cuts in conventional military forces, Pyongyang - which would have to destroy the lion's share of the equipment any such accord would target for elimination - would demonstrate that it was serious about wanting to improve relations and reform its own economy. Such a treaty also would help South Korea reduce its defense budget, freeing up some funds to provide to the North. It could even allow a modest reduction in the US defense budget over time.

Given the state of their current relationship, North and South Korea could hardly be expected to negotiate and implement such an arms accord on their own. The US, while remaining firmly committed to its alliance with South Korea, would have to play the role of an intermediary. Another outside country such as Canada might be approached for help with carrying out the necessarily tough verification provisions.

Like the CFE Treaty and recent Balkan arms accord, our proposal would focus on verified reductions of heavy weaponry: tanks, large-bore artillery, armored personnel carriers, attack helicopters, and combat aircraft. But what formula for arms reductions could both Koreas accept? The North would not give up its numerical edge in heavy equipment, yet the South could not accept a formal codification of North Korean superiority.

A treaty could formally hold both sides to equal ceilings but also allow the North a few loopholes. For starters, US equipment could be counted against the South's limits. Both Koreas could be required to destroy a certain amount of equipment even if doing so would drop the South's arsenal below allowed ceilings. Or the North might be granted a supplemental equipment allowance of 10 percent or 20 percent on the argument that it was needed for internal security purposes. Either approach would maintain the principle of parity but allow North Korea a cushion in practice.

We do not know if Pyongyang would be interested in such a deal. And it would only make sense if the North also displayed a willingness to keep improving its policies on nuclear and missile proliferation and terrorism. But as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright takes office, she might, in consultation with Seoul, consider trying to drive events in the world's most heavily militarized region rather than letting crises there drive us.

*Michael O'Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki, senior scholars in the Brookings foreign policy studies program, recently returned from a week of consultations in Seoul.

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