Korean thaw would raise policy conundrum for US: analysts
by Stephen Collinson
Washington (AFP) June 7, 2000 - The United States will be forced into a radical rethink of its east Asia strategy if next week's historic Korean summit heralds a new era of stability across the world's final Cold War border, analysts said Wednesday.
Washington's foreign policy establishment is alive with anticipation ahead of the unprecedented talks on June 12-14, with experts debating the impact of a string of possible post-summit scenarios on the United States.
With tens of thousands of troops stationed in South Korea and Japan in support of its regional allies, Washington has a huge stake in the outcome of the talks.
Few analysts dispute that the planned meeting meeting in Pyongyang between South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung and his northern counterpart Kim Jong-Il will be a striking diplomatic showpiece.
They caution however, that it represents only a tiny first step towards a safer Korean peninsula and add that North Korea's motives are shrouded in doubt.
Pyongyang's power politics are so impenetrable that few observers, even a core here who have had close contact with the leadership, can say for sure if North Korea intends to move down a path of reform.
Several possible outcomes of the process started by the Pyongyang summit could turn out to have a direct impact on US policy, said Marcus Noland, senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics.
If Kim Jong-Il decided his Stalinist regime would be strengthened by links to the outside world, he could "pave the way for normalisation (of relations) with the US and ease tensions," Noland said at a seminar here on Korean trade.
In time, and to win US recognition and possible economic aid, North Korea might decide to wean itself off missile production and alleged links with terrorism which currently poison its relations with Washington, he added.
Alternatively, and in a scenario far more dangerous for the United States, North Korea could decide to buy into the "techniques" of the outside world, but not the "values" and ignore the need to ease the plight of its people.
The government may instead decide to funnel economic gains back into the military, and so pose an even greater threat to peace, he added.
US policymakers must be on guard for such an outcome -- described as "the worst of all worlds" by Brookings Institution scholar Joel Wit, at another forum here.
But if tensions do ebb and North Korea reduces its military, "you are going to have a lot of people thinking major changes are underway, and major (strategic) changes are necessary," said fellow Brookings expert Robert Suettinger.
"This is going to be very difficult not only in Korea but Japan," which could face even more domestic pressure to reduce its own US garrison, he said.
The US military still maintains 20 bases in South Korea, mostly opened during and after the 1950-53 Korean War.
Pyongyang's official media makes frequent calls for US troops to be pulled out.
A latest set of talks between the United States and North Korea ended last month in Rome, with little agreement.
North Korea has called on the United States to ease sanctions, while the United States is concerned over Pyongyang's ballistic missile program.
Under a 1994 deal, a US-led international consortium promised to complete construction of nuclear power plants by 2003 in return for Pyongyang freezing its nuclear weapons program.
The Korean talks will also be closely watched in the United States, as they have implications for a proposed missile defence shield currently being discussed here.
North Korea is among the ranks of so-called "rogue nations" cited by supporters of the scheme as possible threats to the US mainland.
Pyongyang sparked alarm here and in Japan when it tested a long-range missile in 1998.