Changing Perceptions of Our Enemy

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Changing Perceptions of Our Enemy

Pyongyang responded with a protest and a warning when South Korea''s Ministry of National Defense recently identified the North as the country''s principal enemy. North Korea''s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland declared that labeling a partner in dialogue and cooperation as the principal enemy amounted to an anti-reunification act that would push inter-Korean relations towards confrontation.

It also warned that if the policy out-lined in the Defense Ministry''s white paper remains unchanged, the provisions of North-South agreements could not be properly implemented. There has been criticism even in some sectors of South Korean society, suggesting that defining the North as the main enemy in an era of reconciliation is anachronistic and could impede the peace process. But this latest controversy has not derailed cross-border negotiations and the fourth round of ministerial talks are taking place as planned in Pyongyang.

Even so, the issue of how to perceive North Korea in this era of dialogue remains a pivotal question. Is North Korea our principal enemy, as the Defense White Paper says, or is it a partner in dialogue and cooperation, as North Korea insists? The issue is not only related to national defense policies, it is also directly linked with the revision of the National Security Law and the direction of our North Korea policies. It is also related to the status of United States forces in South Korea. The North believes the United States also regards the Communist state as its principal military enemy, that it is at the root of hostile policies towards the North and that it should change its policies towards the Pyongyang regime.

But if South Korea no longer defined North Korea as the principal enemy, then the military goals of the ROK-US Combined Forces would have to be revised. It would also mean having to study the question of changing the status of the USFK, as some people in South Korea claim is necessary.Complex issues do not always have succinct answers. North Korea is a partner in discussions on peace and reunification but at the same time it poses the greatest military threat to our national security. We have to deal with these contradictions as they are. The North has become an increasingly important dialogue partner but its threats have not vanished.

According to a report by the U.S. 8th Army, the preparedness of the North Korean army has increased during the past year in spite of the mood of inter-Korean detente. In August and September, North Korea''s army carried out its largest military exercise since 1990, mobilizing 100,000 troops and 1,800 tanks. The drills continued even as the first inter-Korean defense ministerial talks were taking place. Some people attribute the military exercises to internal factors in North Korea. An attempt to gain a greater leverage in its negotiations with the United States could be another motive.

But whatever the reasons, the Defense Ministry''s role is to be prepared with enough military capabilities to counter any provocation from the North. Therefore, identification of the North as the principal enemy remains valid despite the ongoing inter-Korean dialogue. Those in charge of national defense have to base their analysis and preparations on the military capabilities of potential enemies, not on their unspecified intentions.

There is no doubt that engraved images of the enemy hamper the settlement of disputes. The opportunity to establish peace can be lost and disputes prolonged if either side continues to regard the other as an enemy, even when it has clearly changed. But modifying the concept of enemy and holding an image of the other side that is at odds with reality can cause us to let down our guard and ultimately undermine national security. Central to the issue is whether or not the other side has truly changed. Peace was established between Israel and Egypt at Camp David because Egyptian President Sadat changed his fundamental perceptions, and the Cold War ended because Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev did the same thing. They came to understand that a basic revision of all of their existing policies was the only way of breaking out of deadlocks and moving forward.

We must not lose a precious opportunity to establish peace on the Korean peninsula by adhering to a rigid concept of who is our enemy, but at the same time we have to be mindful of the fact that revising our current concept in the absence of any changes in the nature of threats, including North Korea''s military power, could threaten our security. Before changing our perceptions of the North we must have a very clear idea about its real intentions towards peaceful coexistence with the South. Even more important, we have to help North Korea realize that peaceful coexistence is the only way to its survival. In this respect, holding on to the concept of North Korea as the main enemy and maintaining an impenetrable security posture does not obstruct inter-Korean relations. It can help to make North Korea understand that it has no choice but to overhaul fundamentally its existing strategies for South Korea and in so doing it will also contribute in the long run to establishing peace in the Korean peninsula.
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