Anticipating Strategic Surprise on the Korean Peninsula

Article excerpt

Key Points

The June 2000 summit between South Korean President, Kim Dae Jung, and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Il, raised hopes for reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula. South Korean officials anticipated a return summit in Seoul and considered a declaration of peace within reach. Today, stagnation is the likely prospect for inter-Korean relations, which could make U.S. policy a scapegoat during the South Korean election year.

Kim Jong II can influence the pace, if not the substance, of diplomacy on the peninsula, and diplomatic surprise cannot be ruled out. Pyongyang almost certainly would seek to exploit a second summit to drive carefully crafted wedges between Washington and Seoul on key security issues.

Despite a rapidly contracting economy, Kim Jong Il has continued to commit scarce resources to strengthening North Korean positions along the DMZ. While observing a self-imposed freeze on missile testing, Pyongyang continues to export missiles and missile-related technologies to areas of strategic interest to the United States. Yet to be resolved is the record of North Korea's own attempt to develop nuclear weapons.

To protect U.S. interests during this election year, the Bush administration should pursue an activist diplomatic and security strategy informed by the principles of transparency, reciprocity, and verification. The objective should be to move North Korea toward an economic and political opening.

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Despite the current stagnation in SouthNorth dialogue, relations between the Koreas have been subject to sudden shifts. In the warm afterglow of the historic June 2000 South-North Summit in Pyongyang, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's engagement policy appeared to have created a self-sustaining dynamic. Policymakers in Washington and Seoul scrambled to manage the potential diplomatic and security consequences of a rapid breakthrough in bilateral relations driven by presidential summitry.

Yet the spirit of the summit was shortlived; inter-Korean relations stagnated during the first half of 2001. In Seoul, a no-confidence vote on President Kim's policy toward North Korea resulted in the resignation of Unification Minister Lim Dong Won, the architect of the Sunshine Policy, and presidential election campaigning was visible on the political horizon. Meanwhile, Pyongyang declined Secretary of State Colin Powell's offer to "meet anywhere, anytime, with no preconditions."

However, in mid-September 2001, the political pendulum suddenly swung back toward guarded optimism. Shortly after Kim Jong Il's August meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to North Korea, Pyongyang called for a resumption of South-North dialogue after a 9-month hiatus. The Fifth NorthSouth Ministerial meeting, held in Seoul September 16-18, resulted in agreement to resume family exchanges, restart restoration of road and rail links through the demilitarized zone (DMZ), undertake flood control measures along the Imjin River border, and hold a sixth round of ministerial talks. Prospects for a return summit again became a matter of political speculation. Less than 2 months later, at the Sixth Ministerial, Pyongyang made clear that it had little interest in expanding SouthNorth contacts.

Developments over the past year underscore the mercurial nature of South-North relations. They also highlight the discomforting extent to which Kim Jong Il and North Korea control at least the tempo, if not the substance, of the reconciliation process. A return summit, though now nowhere on the horizon, could launch peninsular relations into new dimensions, with new policy challenges for the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK). As Kim demonstrated by agreeing to the first summit, he is capable of doing the unexpected.

At the same time, North Korea remains a threat to American interests on the Korean peninsula and beyond. …