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OCTOBER 27, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 42 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Tests of Peace
Why Korean détente makes East Asia's powers uneasy

ALSO:

Assault on Arcades: Malaysia's ban on videogame establishments is misguided

For landmark drama, few scenes can top South Korean President Kim Dae Jung stretching out his hand in friendship to North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang last June. Unless it's an image of the latter bear-hugging Bill Clinton. Even that spectacle is now a possibility following the American president's watershed meeting last week with Kim Jong Il's right-hand man, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has already accepted an invitation to visit Pyongyang. Could she be on a mission similar to Henry Kissinger's 1971 trip to Beijing, when he prepared the way for president Richard Nixon's groundbreaking journey to China?

Events are moving at a breakneck pace on the Korean peninsula. They have watershed implications not only for the Koreas and the U.S., but also for neighboring powers like China, Japan and Russia. But will the momentum be quick enough to allow Clinton to visit Pyongyang before his term expires in January? Many loose ends remain in the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. American presidents do not usually set foot in "terrorist states," so, at a minimum, Washington would have to lift that designation. Jo hinted as much during his U.S. talks, but his government must offer something concrete in return. That could be pledges to stop its missile-development plans and deport some terrorists.

The North-South thaw has produced a groundswell of positive sentiment in Korea, bitterly divided for so long. But the two sides' quickening diplomatic dance with the U.S. could also play on their rivalry. For the past year, Kim Dae Jung has effectively steered the North-South rapprochement — for which he richly deserved the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize. Now the U.S. is grabbing the initiative, with the cooperation of North Korea's leader. By sending Vice Marshal Jo to Washington and giving him full negotiating authority, Kim Jong Il is showing that he has won over his own hardliners and has the confidence to deal with the U.S. directly. The South Koreans were unlikely to have been overjoyed to see their rivals sipping tea in the White House. To avoid unleashing new and disruptive tensions, all three governments will need to manage their subsequent moves with sensitivity.

Special delicacy is required because the burgeoning dEtente in Korea impacts virtually all key neighbors. China is largely pleased by the developments, as the friendly relations it nurtured in recent years with Seoul mean Beijing is now the sole power with such ties to both halves of Korea. That gives the Chinese expanded clout in the peninsula. Yet they worry that a growing U.S.-North Korea dialogue will weaken their influence on their longtime friends in Pyongyang. China also frets about closer U.S.-Japan military cooperation, which it sees as aimed at itself. Japan, while happy to see more relaxed North-South ties, is uneasy about rising Chinese sway over Korea. And Russia, once Pyongyang's chief patron, may strive to regain lost influence. As the famous Chinese term for "crisis" would have it, the emerging calculus in Northeast Asia is full of both opportunity and danger.

Right now the opportunities are more obvious. Excising North Korea from Washington's list of terrorist states would remove a major obstacle to establishing diplomatic relations. It would also make the North eligible for foreign investment and aid that goes beyond mere food and humanitarian assistance. As a prelude to full ties, the U.S. will likely open a long-mooted liaison office in Pyongyang. Japan, too, will probably open diplomatic relations with North Korea. Then a peace treaty can be concluded, ending a 50-year-old state of war and removing one of Asia's most dangerous flashpoints.

But as peace grows more palpable in Northeast Asia, it will become harder to justify the stationing of 37,000 U.S. combat troops in South Korea and backup forces in Japan (especially Okinawa). Already, according to a recent South Korean poll, 67% of respondents favor a gradual U.S. withdrawal and 11% an immediate one. On this issue, official postures belie the shifting currents. Kim Dae Jung says he favors keeping the troops, and even Kim Jong Il no longer opposes them. Washington says they are needed to maintain "stability." But if the Koreas are smiling at each other, what is the cause of instability? Unless it is China — and the forces are there to "contain" it and defend Taiwan from potential mainland attack. That, at least, is how the script will be read in Beijing. And it could trigger new diplomatic and military face-offs.

Any U.S. troop pullout will quickly raise the question of whether Japan will expand its own armed forces, which could set off an arms race in Northeast Asia. To forestall that, Tokyo and Beijing must intensify their efforts to defuse longstanding suspicions and build mutual confidence. Zhu Rongji's fence-mending visit to Japan last week, which saw the Chinese premier downplay demands for a wartime apology and praise Japanese aid, is a step in the right direction. The trip also produced an unprecedented agreement on naval exchanges. More such initiatives are need on the even more crucial — and always delicate — relationship between China and the U.S. They will help ensure that the enormous potential of the historic rapprochement in Korea translates into economic, diplomatic and security benefits for all Asia.

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