Beijing reunification priority: Get US troops out of S. Korea

As US eases sanctions on North Korea this week, China pushes for a demilitarized peninsula

After playing a major role in persuading North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to hold an inter-Korean summit, China is quietly stepping up calls for the United States to withdraw its troops from the South.

"China doesn't want to see North Korea absorbed by the South in a democratic union," says Han Zhenshe, a leading North Korean expert at the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. But he adds that China might accept such a Korean federation if the 37,000 US forces now stationed in the South were withdrawn.

Mr. Han's comments echo the state-run China Daily on June 17 which reiterated the call for a US pullout: "Further dtente on the Korean peninsula will gradually weaken the basis for the US military presence in South Korea."

But Han says China does not want any end of cross-Korean hostilities to lead to a reunified Korea that falls under the American defense umbrella, bringing US forces to its border.

China backed the North in its 1950-53 war against South Korea and the US. The war ended with a truce, but was followed by decades of hostilities. All four combatants are negotiating a final peace treaty.

During a secretive trip here last month by Kim Jong Il, Beijing urged him to improve ties with the South and the US, and to implement free-market reforms, says Kongdan Oh, an expert on North Korea at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Va. But China's Communist rulers also pledged "strategic and political support for North Korea to counter" the US-led forces, says Ms. Oh.

Oh, who was briefed over the weekend by a top South Korean official on the summit, says although a joint declaration made no mention of demilitarization, "the two sides discussed nonaggression and preventing war on the Korean peninsula."

North Korea, which for decades has vowed to reunify the peninsula by invading the capitalist South, since the summit has displayed a remarkably pro-peace stance on a political union.

The government-run Korean Central News Agency reported on June 17 that "Differences in ideologies, ideals and systems that exist in the North and the South cannot be conditions for recourse to arms."

Rather than resorting to armed struggle to protect its communist system, the North proposed that the two sides peacefully coexist in "a reunified federal state" that would include "two systems and two governments," KCNA said. But the North Korean agency added that: "The peaceful reunification of Korea requires the US troops' pullback from South Korea."

Us defense planners have feared that North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program might yield warheads that could one day be placed atop its increasingly sophisticated missiles.

In the last few years the US has promoted a policy of cautious engagement: In exchange for the North's pledges to freeze its nuclear research and missile tests, Washington has begun supplying enough food and fuel to prevent a complete economic collapse and massive famine. This week, the US announced that economic sanctions had been eased after almost 50 years.

The US should now expand its policy to include a broader plan for troop cuts on both sides of the heavily armed Korean border, says Charles Ferguson, a nuclear weapons expert at the American Federation of Scientists in Washington, D.C. If North Korea, which now boasts a 1 million-strong army, "took similar steps toward demilitarization, the US could commit to cutting its troops [in South Korea] over a five-year period," adds Mr. Ferguson.

But a White House official said Sunday that it's too early to discuss US troop reductions or a pullout. South Korean officials generally agree.

Lee Kyu Hyung, a senior South Korean diplomat in Beijing, notes that US troops have been a target of protests this week in South Korea. But he adds that last week's historic summit "is just the first round - we all know there are 999 more steps to go."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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