[OUTLOOK]Unification sooner than we think

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[OUTLOOK]Unification sooner than we think

At last weekend's Jeju Peace Forum my International Herald Tribune colleague Don Kirk spoke briefly on the media's dismal record of anticipating events on the Korean Peninsula.

We're supposed to be well informed people, he said, but in the past half-century we failed to foresee the outbreak of the Korean War, the Korean economic "miracle," the political triumph of Kim Dae-jung. The famine in North Korea took us by surprise, as did the sudden rapprochement of North and South Korea under the "sunshine policy."

Journalists, it has been noted, do better by waiting until after events happen and then explaining why they were inevitable. But Mr. Kirk challenged us to look ahead once more, and try to see what our next surprise will be in Korea. O.K., here's my guess: reunification sooner than we think.

That's a hoary old prediction that journalists have been making for years, on the expectation that North Korea must be about to collapse. As Mr. Kirk might remind us, that prediction has been wrong every time. Why should it be any different this time?

Simply because events don't move as glacially as we suppose. The more common pattern is for a period of apparent stalemate or stagnation to be followed by sudden, wrenching change. It is of course foolish to predict when a dramatic upheaval might occur, but that change will be sudden and dramatic, rather than controlled and incremental, is the safer bet. There was much head-shaking, for example, over the suddenness of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire. "Who could have foreseen . . .?" the head-shakers marveled.

Well, I foresaw it. I was reporting from Eastern Europe in those days, and I wrote several analytical pieces suggesting that the Cold War was more likely to end in the Soviet side's peaceful collapse than to peter out in some "convergence" of systems or flare up in a world-destroying war. But I wasn't foolish enough to set a date for this prediction; I thought it might take another generation. To me, the Soviet collapse was inevitable because the system made no sense; it had, in Marxist jargon, "internal contradictions." Similarly, although North Korea has some strengths that are underestimated in the West such as the nationalist "juche" ideology that enables Pyeongyang to portray itself as proudly independent, in contrast to the U.S.-dominated South it has too many weaknesses to endure without fundamental change. But its system cannot adapt to evolutionary change. Its collapse is therefore a matter of time.

The "sunshine policy" of President Kim Dae-jung does not, as he describes it, aim at reunification of Korea. "[It] can be characterized in one word," Mr. Kim wrote for last year's Jeju Peace Forum, "an effort to live in peaceful coexistence, and to foster peaceful change and cooperation, so that the South and the North can both extricate themselves from the fear of war. Unifi-cation," he continued, "is an issue for the future. . . . [It ] may take 10, or even 20 years."

I think it may become an issue sooner than that. As many of the participants in the Jeju forum noted, the world's strategic environment has changed since Sept. 11 ?the United States is at war with terrorism. War shakes things up. Change is forced on the losers, but on the winners too. Britain and France won World War II, but lost their colonial empires. Many pundits have speculated about the fallout for NATO and European integration from the war on terror, or whether the authoritarian regimes of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt can survive, even though they are not the axis of evil.

And North Korea? It is being affected already, as food-aid organizers warn that relief efforts in Afghanistan are diverting assistance from North Korea. Pyeongyang says it is ready for dialogue with the United States, but it may find America a less patient negotiator; former Defense Secretary William Perry spoke in Jeju of a more "coercive diplomacy" from Washington.

Meanwhile, Pyeongyang showed its continuing irresolution this week when, two weeks before the opening of its ballyhooed Arirang festival, it disinvited the hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors it had planned to welcome. Safer, it reasoned, to keep the world at bay.

Rigidity is built into structures skyscrapers, leg bones, political systems to protect them from expected stresses. But when the stress environment changes rapidly, the rigid structure may not be able to handle it.

President Kim's plan, wise and courageous, is to postpone reunification until it can come about safely on terms agreeable to both Koreas. Let's hope it works out that way. More likely, reunification will happen chaotically. Just don't ask me when.


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The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by Hal Piper

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