Progress Possible in Korea, with Push from US the US and South Korea Should Offer the North Aid and Trade If It Agrees to an Arms-Control Accord

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Is the mini-cold war on the Korean peninsula finally beginning to end?

Pyongyang has recently cooperated in the search for United States MIAs, released an American student who had entered North Korean territory illegally, indicated a willingness to acknowledge wrongdoing in sending a submarine into South Korean territory, and displayed some restraint in its missile-development programs. Also, the 1994 nuclear-reactor deal, which severely curtails the North's ability to produce weapons-usable fissile material, remains on track.

More fundamental progress may be possible, but it will require a major US initiative. Yet for too long, American officials have tended to pay attention to the security situation on the Korean peninsula only when crises forced them to. Emphasis by outgoing Secretary of State Warren Christopher and President Clinton on the submarine incursion during their recent trips to Asia is a case in point. This approach provides us with insufficient leverage over Pyongyang and allows North Korea to keep playing the dangerous brinkmanship games it knows best. This must change. Despite the limited prospects for immediate success, the US and South Korea should offer Pyongyang significant economic aid and trade if it agrees to an arms-control accord requiring deep cuts in its heavy conventional weaponry. Despite the North's militarism, history of terrorism and assassination, and heavy-handed control over its own people, there is little to lose from attempting a hard-headed policy of detente. Some might ask, why help North Korea when it is down? Why not squeeze it until it capitulates? The answer is that we have far more to fear from a desperate regime than from a modest recovery of the backward North Korean economy, now only one-twentieth the size of the South's. By agreeing to deep cuts in conventional military forces, Pyongyang - which would have to destroy the lion's share of the equipment any such accord would target for elimination - would demonstrate that it was serious about wanting to improve relations and reform its own economy. Such a treaty also would help South Korea reduce its defense budget, freeing up some funds to provide to the North. …