Korean Peninsula: the next step

THE unification of Korea is a desirable but highly unrealistic goal of Korean diplomacy. Given the existing global and regional strategic environment and the great powers' policy positions toward the Korean problem, the next urgent task of Korean diplomacy is to achieve a courageous break with past policy assumptions and modus operandi for a genuine reduction of tension with North Korea. To this end, it is advisable that Seoul should effect a significant change in its own psychology of insecurity and inertia and try a more flexible course of action similar to the approaches taken by the Federal Republic of Germany in the late '60s. This change is possible in close cooperation with the United States and without inviting unacceptable damage to Seoul's security concerns. In brief, a political breakthrough in the Korean impasse can be attempted for the benefit of all the concerned parties through the following processes:

A diplomatic breakthrough between the US and North Korea is neither impossible nor undesirable from Seoul's or Washington's perspective. For this end, a serious test of North Korean responses through active diplomacy must be made.

Seoul must either accept diplomatic attempts (i.e., US-North Korean negotiations) toward this end, or at least should not actively oppose such diplomatic overtures as innately inimical to Seoul's national interest.

A successful breakthrough between Seoul/Wash- ington and Pyongyang, or between Washington and Pyongyang, can significantly facilitate a genuine diplomatic opening between Peking and Seoul.

An additional incentive for such a culmination [Seoul-Peking relations] can be provided by Seoul's severance of diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

This in turn could induce Peking to reciprocate significantly the US approaches to Pyongyang by offering wider political (not merely economic and cultural) avenues for vastly expanded ``political'' links with Seoul.

When this point is reached (successful American-North Korean diplomatic negotiations and Chinese-South Korean political accommodation), Seoul's desire for a vastly upgraded relationship with the Soviet Union could find a positive reaction from Moscow. In fact, there are no other conceivable avenues for Moscow's political approaches to Seoul except through Seoul's political ties with China (made possible by America's flexible attitude toward Pyongyang).

The continued tension with the ever-attendant threat of a renewed military conflict in Korea on a major scale is in no one's interest. This is particularly true with the US and China. What is important for Seoul to bear in mind is that if and when a major military conflict recurs in Korea, it may not be able to count on vigorous and commensurate American military assistance. Despite repeated assurances from Washington, the necessary American military commitment in Korea, as given in the '50s, is extremely doubtful. A political solution to the perpetual Korean crisis is therefore more urgent and essential to the US than Washington might be willing to concede openly. Sooner or later, the US can be expected to seek a political solution in Korea through direct political negotiations with the North -- with or without Seoul's cooperation and blessing.

China's modernization efforts; Moscow's preoccupation elsewhere; North Korea's growing need for flexibility and openness to the outside world; Japan's changing world role; the relative decline of American political and military capabilities, as well as its more pressing priorities elsewhere, will soon dictate a new strategic environment for Korea. Seoul can either begin now to adjust to these changes, of its own volition with the necessary psychological preparation, or be dangerously left out from the evolving process, at its peril. Seoul's economic prospect is not bright, and its rising burden of foreign debts and declining exports will one day soon force it to divert its defense outlays to its civilian needs. It can do this either through a prior attainment of reduced military tension or by being forced into the unavoidable with the dangerous military tension still in place -- along with the lessening credibility of the American military shield.

Dr. T. C. Rhee is a professor of history at the University of Dayton.

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