AMONG the foreign-policy surprises in store for President Clinton is the prospect of a unified Korea and what to do about it. Americans are ill-prepared to deal with this issue, but we had better get ready. The Clinton administration may have to put Korean unification on a front burner.
The world has lived with a divided Korea for more than a generation. The existence of two Koreas seems normal. In fact, it remains abnormal and is a problem destined to be resolved. The Korea problem is a by-product of the cold war that has outlived its original context.
North and South Korea already are adapting to new realities. That process is proceeding haltingly because neither Seoul nor Pyongyang trusts the other enough to rapidly accelerate toward ending their conflict. But there is a growing sense that the Korean cold war will end, too.
The United States has two fundamental options. It can be a passive observer or an active protagonist, helping Koreans to unify. US passivity may have been satisfactory during the cold war, when it appeared the stalemate might endure indefinitely. But passively leaving Korean unification to the Koreans is too risky in the post-cold-war era. The US must become an enthusiastic backer of Korean unification.
Two factors favor activism. First, the process of Korean unification is certain to be expensive. South Koreans are intimidated by the anticipated costs. Unlike the former West Germany, South Korea almost certainly cannot afford to foot the bill and may seek help. The financial demands on the US and Japan could be enormous.
Second, regardless of how the costs are met, the US will have to deal with the influence a unified Korea will have on its region. As long as the US has major political, economic, and security concerns in the Western Pacific - and there is no sign that they will evaporate - Korea's impact on China, Japan, and Russia matters. Consequently, the way that Koreans eventually unify also matters.
American activism regarding Korean unification might take several forms. Borrowing from our Middle East experience, why shouldn't the US president foster a Camp David summit between the leaders of North and South Korea?
If such approaches are too flamboyant for Washington's taste, the US could take the initiative in expanding the network of inter-Korean contacts by upgrading its diplomatic access to North Korea. If pursued as part of an explicitly pro-unification US policy, these steps would not be destabilizing. Both Seoul and Pyongyang should welcome such US activism.
At a minimum, the US should become relentlessly upbeat about Korean unification. American officials from the president to the ambassador in Seoul should display enthusiasm for unification, look forward to its consequences, foresee opportunities, and relish the stability it could bring to Northeast Asia.
AS unification becomes a more realistic prospect, the US must be prepared to help at the margins as the two current Koreas recreate a national government. The US won't want to be, nor can it afford to be, the sole external guarantor for that costly process. But the US has borne heavy financial burdens subsidizing South Korean security since the Korean War cease-fire. It is not unreasonable to anticipate some continuation of security and financial guarantees from the US.
The costs for Korean unification, however, should be divided among the countries that still stand behind the UN commitment to Korea. In particular, Japan should bear a significant financial burden. Tokyo has a moral obligation of many years standing that it should fulfill by paying a hefty share of the unification costs. Involving Japan may not be an easy task, but that, too, should be part of an activist agenda for the US.
Meanwhile, Americans must prepare for the day when unification is achieved. How will a unified Korea fit in the Asian balance of power? How will US policies toward China and Japan be affected? How will the US manage the transfer of arrangements it has with South Korea to the new political entity?
The last question is perhaps the most pressing for US planners. Since the main purpose of US forces in Korea has been to deter (and if necessary defend against) renewed North Korean aggression, won't the US military mission evaporate after unification?
Many specialists in post-cold-war European security are today trying to reinvent NATO; others say NATO should be relegated to history. After unification, should Americans and Koreans simply declare victory and move on to a post-containment relationship without a reinvented alliance? For planning purposes, Americans should determine in advance whether it is in their interest to seek new problems that might sustain the old defense relationship with Korea.
Just as Americans debate the pros and cons of NATO, it seems certain that Korea's unification will provoke a comparable debate about continued US involvement there. Why not preempt that issue by planning carefully for a less military-oriented US relationship with post-unification Korea?
Korean unification may or may not occur during the four to eight years available to the Clinton administration. But at a minimum the new administration can prepare contingency plans for Korea. In keeping with its "change" theme, it should adopt a creative approach to the Korea problem that will allow the US to be well-positioned to deal with Korean unification.