Caught Between History's Currents

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Caught Between History's Currents

The United States Intends to Pursue The Program at Full Speed

Two currents from the United States and North Korea, which will determine this year''s climate on the Korean Peninsula, are gathering force. The current that originated from the North at the beginning of the year is borne on the changes in its way of thinking. Stunned by the fruits of economic reforms in Shanghai, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is urging reforms and opening. The winds of opening from the North, while drawing strength from China''s market socialism, also look forward to South Korea''s corresponding response.

The other current is the Bush administration''s plan to deploy a National Missile Defense system. The project will chill U.S.-Russia relations, create rough billows across the Taiwan Strait and send forecasts of stormy conditions over the Korean Peninsula.

The two currents run counter to each other. Although the purpose of the military program is to protect the United States from incoming long-range ballistic missiles, it has a direct bearing on South Korea. Internally, the system targets Russia and China. Externally, it is aimed at such terrorist states as North Korea and Iraq, with the finger pointed at North Korea''s launching of a Taepodong I missile over Japan to the Pacific as the most ostensible proof of threat.

Based on the U.S. intelligence agency''s information, Pyongyang has, at best, one or two nuclear bombs, and its missiles are hopelessly imprecise. Yet the United States is raising an uproar over the possibility that Taepodong II missiles ?when developed ?can hit Phoenix, Arizona, and Madison, Wisconsin. Overreaction or not, the United States intends to pursue the program at full speed to defend itself against potential threats.

Based on a strategy called the "3+3 plan" for deploying the program, the United States spent three years since 1996 on development and test flights, although it failed to launch interceptor missiles. It is now at the stage of deciding whether to deploy the system over the next three years.

President George W. Bush intends to make a decision in March. Things will turn serious if he decides to begin its deployment immediately. In order to intercept incoming missiles, the Colorado Springs air defense headquarters will command an early warning system, a space-based infrared system, X-band radar and ground-based interceptors. Many of the hundreds of early warning radars have to be based at foreign sites, and therefore require cooperation from allies.

South Korea, as a U.S. ally bordering North Korea, the country of greatest concern for Washington, will have to cooperate with the U.S. plan.

Meanwhile, it is essential for North Korea to improve its relations with the United States in order to implement initiatives based on a new way of thinking. China is in no position to offer funds if Kim Jong-il plans to build an economic special zone in Shinuiju to transform it another Shanghai. Chinese immigrants abroad, whose capital helped to turn Shanghai into a symbol of capitalism, are not likely to risk investing in North Korea. To attract capital from international financial institutions, Pyongyang has to be lifted from the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring states. But the United States is reluctant to do that, as it would eliminate the greatest justification for building the NMD. The new national security team of the U.S. government is even demanding that North Korea reduce its conventional forces.

Caught between these contradictory currents, South Korea faces the dilemma of whether to place the priority on cooperating with the U.S. plan as an ally or hold fast to the sunshine policy of pouring in unconditional aid to the North to encourage it out of isolation. The South Korean government could have secured sufficient grounds for consistently opposing the NMD had President Kim Dae-jung properly delivered the U.S. concerns over weapons of mass destruction to the North last year and discussed military tension-easing measures between the two Koreas. The government can blame no one for its current quandary over North Korea policy, since it was caused by its negligence on military issues as it concentrated on political events and thus roused U.S. distrust.

We cannot accept the NMD project, which will clearly provoke the four major powers surrounding the Korean Peninsula and heighten military tension in Northeast Asia. The government has to find an opening between North Korea''s new perceptions and the NMD program, and begin mediation before the United States finalizes the program and applies pressure. In persuading the Bush administration, which demands concrete proof, not empty words, it should not resort to Kim Jong-il''s unofficial remarks on consenting to the stationing of U.S. troops in Korea or make unreliable claims about the North having renounced its federal unification formula. A more pressing task is persuading the North to eliminate all doubts about its missile development. Instead of seeking an early meeting with Mr. Bush, Mr. Kim has to meet the North Korean leader first if he wishes to maintain his engagement toward the North.

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-bae

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