Foreign Policy Flashpoints: Korea

By Gleysteen, William | Brookings Review, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Foreign Policy Flashpoints: Korea


Gleysteen, William, Brookings Review


North Korea is a peculiar, very isolated society. It is still a communist state. It's a very elitist state, organized, in terms of loyalties, like a tribe. It is in terrible economic condition acknowledged to be so, but even worse than publicly acknowledged. Its industrial policies have run into the ground. It has had a diminishing GDP for six years. It has suffered bad harvests and floods. However, it is surviving, and its survival techniques are reminiscent of a country at war. I don't know how long North Korean society can go on in such circumstances, but there is certainly a limit within the foreseeable future. North Korea also has a highly developed skill, or habit, of playing chicken very successfully. It runs very great risks, the greatest one being the Korean War. Time and again it has tried to use opportunities to push people up to the brink, and it's very important to keep this tactic in mind.

The Korean peninsula was a flashpoint even before the Korean War. The nature of the danger, however, has changed a great deal. Up until around 10 years ago the real danger in North Korea was its military strength, which its society had sacrificed so much to build up. North Korea had powerful allies - the Soviet Union and China - that didn't really approve of its risk taking, but nevertheless provided some comfort. The North posed a massive threat to South Korea. Seoul was only a few miles from the demilitarized zone. The danger of the South being overrun very quickly was very great. In the last 20 years or so, however, the military balance between North Korea and South Korea has gradually been reversed. The combination of South Korean and American forces there today is clearly superior to those of North Korea. But the new danger militarily is that a society that is cornered can perhaps be even more irrational and more dangerous than one that enjoys superiority. This is the situation we face. This is why it is a flashpoint.

Now how do we deal with this? Both South Korea and the United States have a common interest in the security, stability, and prosperity of Korea and the region around it. The most immediately important thing is that nothing be done to undermine the military strength that South Korea enjoys today.

Looking ahead to the period of possible reunification of the two Koreas, some adjustments at least in the composition of U.S. forces in Korea may be possible and sensible, but any significant change in those forces today would be dangerous, particularly in view of North Korea's nuclear developments. We must also do everything we can to avoid the total collapse of the North. If that regime collapses, the resulting chaos will impose an enormous economic burden on South Korea. There would also be a military problem if South Korea tried to fill the vacuum, moving forces near its Chinese border and making China uncomfortable. …

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