[OUTLOOK]U.S. Troop Withdrawal Again an Issue

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[OUTLOOK]U.S. Troop Withdrawal Again an Issue

Unlike the Pyongyang Declaration last July, the joint statement after the North Korea-Russia summit Saturday mentions the removal of the U.S. armed forces in South Korea, so there is great interest about the effect this declaration will have on the political situation of the Korean Peninsula.

As far as I know, Russia has never made officially clear its real position on the withdrawal of the U.S. forces. Russian government officials and specialists on the Korean Peninsula have expressed their personal opinions that the presence of U.S. forces had the positive effect of suppressing military threats from North Korea and contributing to the balance of power in Northeast Asia by heading off an arms race between China and Japan.

But after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expanded its membership and conducted military operations including air raids in Yugoslavia, and as defense collaboration between Japan and the United States intensified in the late 1990s, many Russians saw the alliances between the United States and Japan and South Korea as a NATO-like bloc that restrains Russian influence. Generally, therefore, Russians do not like the idea of U.S. forces remaining in Korea after reunification.

North Korea has consistently called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Korea because it saw the U.S. army as the greatest obstacle to communizing the Korean Peninsula from the moment the armistice agreement was signed in 1953.

But it seemed that Pyongyang's attitude might be changing when word circulated that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il said he approved of the U.S. presence in Korea during the North-South summit last year. Although the government-managed news agencies in North Korea again started calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops after the Bush administration took office, the talk did not receive much attention since North Korea did not raise its voice.

Then, why is the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces mentioned in the new summit declaration? In short, that language may be a ploy to heighten the negotiating power of Russia and North Korea against the United States. Therefore, we should not take the matter too seriously, or consider it a major barrier to continued North-South and Pyongyang-Washington talks. Rather, we should have the wisdom to minimize the statement's adverse effects on those talks.

Actually, North Korea has been taking pains to prepare countermeasures against the U.S. negotiating agenda with the North: implementing the Geneva Agreement (which shuttered Pyongyang's nuclear program in return for nuclear power reactors), halting missile development and exports and reducing conventional weapons. This agenda was laid out by the United States when President Bush announced in June that he wanted to reopen talks with the North.

North Korea's passive attitude to reopening the talks suggests that they are finding it difficult to prepare other plans. Among the U.S. demands, reducing conventional arms is anathema to the North. Since it will be impossible for the North to develop nuclear weapons and continue its missile program due to pressure from the international community, the North will conclude that modernizing their existing conventional weapons is urgent. That point was probably driven home to them after the military conflict in the Yellow Sea last year. The most important aim of North Korean Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il's Russia visit was to strengthen existing military power by purchasing high-tech weapons from Russia.

Russia agreed with the United States to proceed with talks on strategic offensive and defensive weapons at their June 22 summit in Genoa. Full-fledged working-level negotiations began Tuesday. Russia and China held a summit on July 16 in Moscow and strengthened ties against the U.S. missile defense program. Russia is intensifying its cooperation with the North, and went so far as to say it "understands" North Korea's demand to remove U.S. armed forces in the South. Russia's intention is to extend the solidarity of its allies against the U.S. missile system as working level talks with the United States are at hand.

Then how will the Russian position on U.S. troops affect the political situation on the peninsula? This talk could increase the possibility of Russian interference in security issues on the Korean Peninsula. And North-South and North-U.S. talks may come to nothing if Pyongyang sets that withdrawal as a precondition. But North Korea and Russia understand too well that without the improvement of Pyongyang's relationship with the United States, ending its isolation from international society and solving its urgent economic problems are impossible.

So Russia and North Korea have no choice but to compromise at some point: Holding Russia's support as a negotiating card, North Korea may be tempted to return to talks with the United States. In the end, this may work to improve North-South relations.


The writer is a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

by Ko Jae-nam

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