North Korea in Transition

By Chong-Sik Lee; Se-Hee Yoo | Go to book overview

4 The U.S. Role in Northeast Asia

ALLEN S. WHITING

An old American folk saying argues, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." An equally established aphorism cries out, "Time for a change!" These two statements exemplify the debate between the conservative and liberal approach to foreign policy. The debate is endemic and often polemical, being ritualized into national presidential election campaigns. The contradictory themes characterize alternative modes of analysis that evaluate the status quo compared with the speculative projection of what change might entail. With each new administration in Washington, these modes presumably underlie policy reviews automatically undertaken to assess the present course and to examine alternatives. But whereas bureaucracy tends to prefer the continuation of what exists, our task is to test the status quo for flaws and to estimate what costs or benefits may lie in modification of American policy in Northeast Asia.

To take the conservative approach first, the folk saying holds that if things are not going wrong, do not try to change them. Advocates of continuity can credibly apply this formula to the U.S. role in Northeast Asia as it has evolved in recent years. Compared with 1969 when Washington struggled to extricate itself from the Vietnam War and 1979 when President Jimmy Carter faced the shock of Soviet troops moving into Afghanistan, 1989 offered good reason for the Bush administration to stick with the status quo, at least for the early 1990s.

A brief review of past trouble spots and potential sources of tension is reassuring in this regard. The Korean peninsula remains free of war and any serious threat thereof as it has for more than thirty-five years. In South Korea, it is true, radical student violence exploits a range of discontent, including anti- Americanism and antigovernment sentiment remaining from previous regimes' brutality and corruption. Worker demands for higher wages and unions have threatened to widen the pattern of violence. But the general trend since 1987 is predominantly positive so far as liberalization and democratic processes are concerned, enhancing the prospects for social stability and national security.

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