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Don't Let Korea Peninsula Peace Slip Away

January 15, 2002|ERIC J. HEIKKILA and GEORGE O. TOTTEN III | Eric J. Heikkila, an associate professor at USC, is executive secretary and co-founder of the Pacific Rim Council for Urban Development. George O. Totten III is chairman of USC's Korea Project and political science professor emeritus.

As South Korean President Kim Dae Jung nears the end of his term in office, a rare opportunity for progress toward meaningful peace on the Korean peninsula may be slipping from our grasp

By all reports, his "sunshine policy" toward the North--a significant factor in the decision to award him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000--has been obscured by gathering storm clouds.

It seems incredible that only 15 months ago North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, was receiving the first U.S. secretary of State to visit North Korea, and relations between North and South were thawing.

Kim Dae Jung was eager to continue this momentum and hastened to visit President Bush in March 2001, shortly after Bush assumed office.

Kim Dae Jung's hopes were quickly dashed as Bush made abundantly clear his skepticism of any sunshine policy in light of the North's lack of forthrightness with regard to its weapons programs and other security concerns.

Things only became worse after Sept. 11 as the U.S. drew a line purporting to separate "the civilized world" from "the other." Whatever one's view of the world at large, it is clear that the Korean peninsula is one place where a bipolar division between north and south is strongly evident.

In every respect, these two entities constitute the yin and yang of Korean national identity. Ironically, this bifurcation is an outgrowth of a Cold War that is receding from memory elsewhere in the world. Conditions should be right for an easing of relations, but the tensions instead are being reinforced and buttressed by a new global bipolarity. This situation is dangerous to world peace.

Kim Dae Jung personifies a unique historical moment. His demonstrated courage over decades of persecution by military governments in South Korea are unlikely to be matched by his successors, however distinguished they might prove to be.

If Kim Dae Jung is unable to persuade his most important ally of the viability of a sunshine policy, how can we expect any future leader of South Korea to persuade its most steadfast foe that the prospects for peace are genuine?

Although the threat from North Korea is real, it is a mistake to cast it in the same light as Al Qaeda or other terrorist movements dedicated to the destruction of the U.S.

The real danger from North Korea stems from its paranoid view of a world that it has become increasingly cut off from. Kim Dae Jung understands that it is counterproductive to accentuate existing polarities that only serve to reinforce the deep paranoia permeating the North's leadership. He also understands that--with Seoul's 12 million people living at the very edge of this hostile divide--it would be a mistake to let our guard down.

The answer to this tense situation is to diffuse the existing bipolarity rather than reinforce it. The key to such diffusion lies with Russia and China, the same powers that helped create the bipolarity that still defines Korea. The United States should work with Russia and China to explore opportunities for regional economic cooperation with North and South Korea.

Ironically, the events of Sept. 11, which crystallized the new bipolar order, also signified the end of the old one. Both Russia and China now find themselves with the U.S. on the same side of the freshly drawn line against terrorism.

There is also growing recognition of a commonality of interests regarding regional economic development in Northeast Asia. This potential would be boosted significantly through North Korea's participation. It is in China's and Russia's interest to use their influence constructively, and it is in our interest to encourage this process.

Let us take our cue from the winter solstice and not allow our own cloudy thinking to eclipse the waxing potential of South Korea's sunshine policy.

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