[VIEWPOINT]The Conventional View on DisarmamentScaling down conventional arms capability on the Korean peninsula is a new hot issue.
The Bush administration said it wished to discuss tensions rising from conventional arms as well as from North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile development programs. This prompted visits to the United States by the South Korean foreign minister, Han Seung-soo, at the start of June and by Defense Minister Kim Dong-shin on June 18 to discuss the threat of North Korean conventional forces. Mr. Kim's visit attracted attention because he met with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, known as the hardliner at the center of the Bush administration's foreign affairs and national security teams.
Both defense ministers expressed the same opinion: that North Korea still poses a military threat. Washington had been afraid that Seoul would neglect the military threat from the North in favor of policies of reconciliation. Meanwhile, Seoul had been afraid the United States would put the brakes on inter-Korean dialogue to concentrate on the North's military threat. That both sides' defense chiefs concurred with each other must have soothed their anxieties.
The two countries thus agreed to reinforce their joint defense system. Washington said that it would stress the importance of the South Korea-U.S. alliance when designing new strategies and reviewing defense policies, and that it would not make any change in the status of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula for the time being.
Contrary to rumors, it seems Washington has not begun examination into how it would gain a reduction in the threat from North Korean conventional weapons. A White House security secretary I met recently said U.S. government departments agreed on the need for this but have not yet settled on the details of negotiations.
Washington requested Seoul's opinion. Mr. Kim proposed working-level negotiations between South Korea and the United States to come to a common stand on conventional forces reduction, which Mr. Rumsfeld accepted. It is very important that the United States, which has armed forces in Korea and directional authority, and South Korea, which has 700,000-strong conventional forces, approach the reduction from a standpoint of unity. This is more important than who should take the leading role in negotiating with North Korea. Experts and policymakers from both countries must cooperate. The South Korean government already has a plan in mind: to begin with inter-Korean military confidence-building and then attempt a step-by-step reduction of conventional forces on both sides of the peninsula.
From the American side, an unexpected stumbling block to the issue has emerged as a result of changing U.S. policy. The Clinton administration focused exclusively on the North's nuclear weapons and missile development programs, leaving military confidence-building to the two Koreas. The Bush administration's announcement that it was putting conventional arms onto its agenda has caused confusion between South Korea and the United States. It is said that Mr. Kim recommended that Washington leave the reduction in conventional forces to be discussed through inter-Korean negotiations, as stated in the 1992 North-South Basic Agreement.
Both defense ministers also agreed to take a fresh look at the half-century alliance between South Korea and the United States in accordance with both countries' new visions for the 21st century. The United States is adjusting its focus in global policies from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region. A unified Korea would be a crucial strategic point in Asia. Now South Korea must formulate a vision for regional security while remaining concentrated on national security and the North Korean threat.
South Korea and the United States must construct a permanent peace in Northeast Asia and establish lasting peace on the Korean peninsula through the downsizing of conventional forces .
The writer is a professor at National Defense University.
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