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[TODAY] Seoul's Diplomatic Tasks Are Very Clear

Feb 08,2001
This Time, Korea Is Steering Northeast Asia History and Must Arrange Roles for All the Players

Let's paint a large picture of the environs of the Korean Peninsula. Northeast Asia is writhing in the throes of great transformation. It is readying itself to replace the oppressive mantle of the cold war with lighter clothing as a thaw sets in. Unless the Bush administration tears down the current framework of reconciliation, 2001 may become a year of balmy winds created by the improvement in North-South relations spreading to all of Northeast Asia.

Most noteworthy of all are the moves by National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il. Awed by the revolutionary changes in Shanghai, he is planning to race to Moscow to discuss the future of North Korea, the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia with President Putin of Russia. He will then fly over to Seoul (or Cheju island) to meet President Kim Dae-jung.

Mr. Kim, for his part, is planning to meet President Bush of the United States in Washington, and Mr. Putin and Kim Jong-il in Seoul in the first half of the year.

The geopolitical structure of all of Northeast Asia will undergo changes simultaneously for the first time since Japan fought against China and Russia at the end of the 19th century. Back then, Korea was a helpless passenger that had to put its fate in the hands of Japan, China, and Russia as they drove history. This time, Korea is behind the wheel of history.

As the Bush administration claims, North Korea is not demonstrating any visible signs of changes yet. But Kim Jong-il himself is changing. In East Asia, where people power topples dictatorship and corrupt leaders, changes begin from the grassroots and move upward.

In a system like North Korea, however, changes can begin nowhere else but at the top. Every sign of change in Kim Jong-il, no matter how insignificant, is therefore important.

What could have motivated Kim Jong-il to change? During last year''s summit talks, Kim Jong-il is said to have repeatedly demanded that South Korea renounce its goal of invading or absorbing the North to reunify the nation. President Kim retorted that North Korea should first abandon its delusion of communizing the South, instead of worrying about being absorbed by the South or potential acts of aggression. The greatest achievement of the Pyongyang summit is that the two leaders came to trust each other, albeit cautiously.

It was not just the "earth-shaking changes" in Shanghai that prompted Kim Jong-il to change. He appears to have been impressed not only by China''s successful transformation from a planned economy to a market economy while maintaining its one-party dictatorial system, but also by the respect the initiators of economic reforms, such as President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, commanded from the Chinese people. The fact that a market economy and communist dictatorship could coexist may have suggested a great deal to Kim Jong-il.

The political structure of Northeast Asia, with the Korean Peninsula at the center, is again taking on the form of "2 + 4": the two Koreas being the 2, the United States, Japan, China and Russia the 4. The United States has enjoyed almost exclusive influence in the region for half a century; it should be no surprise that it wants to maintain the status quo. It is based on this background that we should understand the forecasts of the Bush administration''s shift to a tougher North Korea policy.

One problem is the potential alienation of Japan. Unlike China and Russia, which have found appropriate roles to play in the changing order of Northeast Asia, Japan has not, due to its lack of political leadership. The alienation of Japan would pose a fundamental obstacle for security in Northeast Asia, because North Korea''s own "earth-shaking changes" can not be successful if there is no assistance from the United States and from Japan, the world''s largest exporter of capital.

This will be the greatest challenge to President Kim''s foreign policy. While convincing Mr. Bush that a comprehensive and conceptual approach of dealing with bigger issues first and then moving to smaller issues is the best policy for handling North Korea issue, Mr. Kim also has to provide room for Japan''s participation. This can only be possible if China and Russia are persuaded to cooperate with Japan''s inclusion.

South Korea''s tasks are plain. First, it has to resolve Korean Peninsula issues through the "2 + 4" framework, centered on North-South dialogue. It then has to focus its diplomatic capabilities on reproducing the peace system on the Korean Peninsula into a multilateral consultation system to promote stability in Northeast Asia. It will be also effective to discuss the U.S. pursuit of a national missile defense system, the greatest potential stumbling block in improving North Korea-U.S. relations, through a multilateral consultation system.

Questioning whether or not colossal changes will take place in the North is as unproductive as debating on the merits of all or nothing. Even if 50 percent - no, 30 percent or even 20 percent - of the anticipated changes take place in North Korea, they should be welcomed for the sake of North-South relations and Northeast Asia.

The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie




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