&#91OUTLOOK&#93Beyond a quick fix for the North

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[OUTLOOK]Beyond a quick fix for the North

North Korea wants a guarantee -- of what? That it won't be attacked? Or that its regime will be preserved?

If the former, there is no problem. Whatever the view may be from Washington, we Seoulites are pretty nearly unanimous that any risk that our city will be turned into a "sea of fire" is not worth running. We are confident that history is on our side, the side of freedom and liberal democracy. We will wait, rather than fight, until North Korea chooses to join the global consensus.

But if Pyeongyang wants us to guarantee the survival of its way of life, that is a problem. As Christians, Buddhists, humanists, how can we agree to guarantee the prolongation of a regime that keeps its people ignorant and starving? On the contrary, we have a moral duty to do everything, short of war, to end an evil regime.

Kim Dae-jung's sunshine policy tried to meet both imperatives. It aimed at "regime change," -- but not yet. Sobered by the German reunification, when a much richer capitalist country than South Korea was practically bankrupted absorbing a much less-poor communist country than North Korea, President Kim decided that reunification should be postponed 10, 15, 20 years -- and that meanwhile North Korea should be built up so it won't be such a burden when reunification finally occurs.

North Korea responded by pocketing concessions, hurling insults, vetoing mail exchanges, staging seaborne provocations, canceling meetings and, perhaps, taking a payoff for agreeing to the summit. Still, the strategy worked, sort of. The North got carrots, and the South postponed reunification. But Washington spoiled everything by saying out loud what Seoul apparently had known -- that North Korea was cheating on its agreements with the South, the United States and the world.

Now what? We still need to transform North Korea, but the timetable has dramatically shortened. The North's only card is the threat to go nuclear, but it's a present threat. The experts say it could have half a dozen bombs in half a year.

So what? The experts also say North Korea probably has one or two bombs already; a Chinese estimate says three to five bombs now. How much more of a threat are several bombs than one or two bombs? One answer is that the North could sell surplus bombs to keep its bankrupt regime going -- if any buyers will tempt the wrath of the Bush administration by dealing with the "axis of evil."

North Korea's nuclear capability is not only its own business. It affects the Northeast Asian neighborhood, where Japan and even Taiwan may feel they have to match Pyeongyang's firepower. And it affects the worldwide nonproliferation regime. For these reasons and others, the current showdown is not a bilateral matter between Pyeongyang and Washington, and it should have a multilateral solution.

One idea is an Asian Security Conference, on the model of the European Security Conference 30 years ago that gave birth to the 1975 Helsinki accords. The process was the Soviet Union's brainchild. It had redrawn Eastern Europe's borders in its own interest after World War II; it wanted a piece of paper saying that these borders would not be challenged. Like North Korea today, it wanted a security guarantee.

For a long time the United States and the Western European countries avoided ratifying Soviet territorial conquest. But since the West had no intention of going to war over the issue, it finally began to think of what it wanted to see in a future Europe. Reduced military tension, obviously. More trade, scientific and cultural exchange across the "Iron Curtain." A third group of issues coalesced around the general notion of "human rights." Progress on these issues would amount to security guarantees for us, the West said.

The eventual agreement said that the postwar European borders would not be challenged by force, but could be changed by agreement. And agreed change is what happened in Germany and in the Soviet Union itself, though not in Yugoslavia. The Communist bloc's human-rights promises, derided at the time as empty and unenforceable, became a measuring stick by which Eastern Europeans came to judge their own societies. Dissident movements sprang up, and in just 14 years the Iron Curtain fell.

Asia's issues are different, but a comprehensive security conference could provide a framework to contain China's and Japan's regional power ambitions. It could set ground rules for the exploitation of undersea resources in Southeast Asia. It could set standards for human rights in "Asian values" societies. It would draw North Korea into the world.

And it would take years to negotiate. We don't have years, so we need a short-term fix. Give the North its security guarantee, but back-load the carrots of diplomatic recognition and economic participation into a future negotiation that could lay a new foundation for Asia-wide peace and prosperity.

* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.


by Hal Piper
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