THE recent capture of a North Korean special forces infiltrator by South Korea served as a grim reminder that 42 years after the signing of the armistice, cold-war confrontation lingers on a divided and heavily armed Korean Peninsula.
That specter of treachery is far more representative of Pyongyang's pattern of behavior than the United States-North Korea nuclear deal, now a year old. The subversion dramatizes why it is a grave mistake to define Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions as the central issue rather than part of the larger Korea problem. In fact, despite all the headlines, it may be the easier part.
The October 1994 ''agreed framework'' produced an immediate freeze of Pyongyang's known nuclear-weapons program and, perhaps eventually, termination of its nuclear ambitions in exchange for two light-water power rectors and other blandishments. For all its considerable flaws, the deal could be a useful step away from confrontation and toward a ''soft landing.''
North Korea has rarely been accused of fulfilling its commitments, however. And the jury must remain out until four years hence, when Pyongyang must reveal its past nuclear activities or risk undoing the deal. But, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, desperation tends to focus the mind. With the end of the cold war, North Korea has lost Soviet economic support and security guarantees, witnessed an erosion of Chinese backing, and suffered five years of economic decline. The death of Kim Il Sung last year dealt Pyongyang perhaps its biggest blow.
The logic of the nuclear deal rests on the hope that North Korea, faced with only bad choices, can be persuaded to trade its nuclear- arms program - its ultimate insurance policy - for economic and political engagement with the US, South Korea, and Japan. But will Pyongyang follow through, or try to have it both ways? Are a ''soft landing'' and gradual reunification process possible?
These are immense challenges; but they are born of success: success of the Republic of Korea; success of market-oriented democracy; and success of deterrence and the US-South Korean alliance. While the advantages all rest with the US and its South Korean ally, the key issue is where to go from here.
Nuclear issue, conventional threat
The obsession with the nuclear issue has taken our eyes off the prize of reducing the conventional threat from more than 500,000 North Korean troops and artillery deployed less than 100 km from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This must be the centerpiece of US-North Korea dialogue and, on a well-coordinated parallel track, of North-South reconciliation. Even if the nuclear deal succeeds fully, the North's conventional, missile, and chemical threats will not necessarily be diminished one iota.
By according so much importance to the nuclear issue, US policy amounts to a kind of ''Hail Mary'' strategy, based on the vague hope that the nuclear deal will somehow spark resolution of the other concerns. Lack of a larger game plan for advancing US and allied interests, however, has increased North Korean leverage.
Thus, a year later, the North is still trying to bid up the price of its nuclear program, demanding more benefits in the arrangements-for-the-reactor deal. South Korean firms are beginning to invest in the North, and the South and Japan are providing nearly 1 million tons of rice, essentially gratis. Yet the North refuses to engage the South seriously and has continued to unilaterally undermine the armistice.
Along the way, the nuclear deal has left scars on the US-South Korean relationship. By making the nuclear issue a US-North Korean affair, the Clinton administration marginalized Seoul's role. There are precious few champions of the US-South Korean alliance in South Korea these days, and American visitors today find a palpable degree of distrust. This was reflected in a recent US Information Agency poll: Support for the US military presence, at 72 percent, was down 10 percent from 1994. But the overall opinion of the US was down 20 percent from a year ago and, for the first time in 12 years, more unfavorable than favorable.
Such an erosion of trust owes much to US trade pressures as well as the nuclear deal; it is hardly reassuring. Our bonds, forged in blood and reinforced by shared values of freedom and democracy, are not to be taken lightly. But how do we now build a new, more balanced partnership to manage the challenges of reunification (and beyond) that both Americans and Koreans will support?
The immediate challenge is managing the transition from the current military stalemate to what comes next. The US and South Korea, working closely with Japan, must devise a game plan for addressing the larger agenda with North Korea; dealing with conventional forces, missiles, and chemical weapons; and putting the South back in the center of this process.
North Korea's strategy is clear: It is focused like a laser on the US. It sees building ties to Washington as a key to legitimacy and international economic aid and investment, as a potential guarantor of security, and as a possible restraint on South Korea. Indeed, senior North Korean officials have lately even hinted to recent visitors that US troops might serve as a positive stabilizing force once a peace mechanism is reached. I believe North Korea's seemingly erratic behavior is easily explained once this strategy is understood.
It may be that with a still-hazy political situation in the North, little movement on issues beyond the nuclear matter is possible. But the principle for US-North Korean relations must be reciprocity. If US, South Korean, and Japanese concerns are addressed, if the North abandons its missile program and its chemical arms, and pulls its troops back from the DMZ, we should respond correspondingly.
But we must not permit the North to drive wedges between the US and its allies in Northeast Asia. Pyongyang appears to be pursuing a two-track approach to policy: moving ahead in a relatively conciliatory fashion on the nuclear issue, while the military pursues its own confrontational agenda. North Korea should not be permitted to unilaterally abrogate the armistice accord. The challenge for US policy is to give the North a way to save face without compromising our interests.
Let me offer a modest proposal. Pyongyang has suggested to recent visitors the idea of an interim peace mechanism. Ultimately, a peace accord is something upon which the North and South must agree. But with its forces on the ground, the US is a factor. Why not hold trilateral US-South-North talks, starting with the issue of a border-crossing mechanism and, perhaps, expanding to confidence-building measures? If the North is serious, it ought not to oppose hot lines and transparency measures such as notification of military exercises.
In the foreseeable future, Korea will be unified; the North will fade, and with it the apparent rationale for 37,000 US troops deployed on the peninsula. This inevitable reality will raise questions in the US, Korea, and Japan about the nature of our security relationships and military presence. Some thoughtful analysts suggest a ''regional role'' for continued basing of American forces in a unified Korea. But Korea won't be able to afford - and a reluctant Congress is unlikely to pay for - US troops whose mission appears a mystery. Korean unification, in turn, is likely to raise questions in Japan about the US force presence as well.
A credible strategy must anticipate change and alter the American security presence in the Pacific to adjust to new realities. The relationship I envision might include pre-positioned equipment in Korea, vigorous military exercising and other types of cooperation, and access arrangements. As with the North, whether the US-South Korean alliance finds a soft landing or an abrupt shock following transformation of the peninsula depends on how the relationship is managed.
Winston Churchill once remarked that Americans, given our ingenuity and resourcefulness would, when faced with a difficult situation, invariably make the right choice - after exhausting all other alternatives. I do not believe either the United States or South Korea has yet made the right choices in regard to Pyongyang. But neither can we afford the luxury of exhausting all other alternatives.