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The Road to Pyongyang
[Analysis] Center of gravity in North Korea policy is in Seoul, not Washington
Timothy Savage (yamanin)     Print Article 
Published 2007-08-10 13:37 (KST)   
Wednesday's announcement that a second inter-Korean summit would be held from Aug. 28-30 in Pyongyang set off the predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth among Washington insiders. Typical was the response of Bruce Klingner of the conservative Heritage Foundation, who wrote that the summit "risks undermining multinational efforts to denuclearize North Korea and could strain Seoul's relationship with Washington, in the long term undermining the U.S.-South Korean military deterrent to the North's lingering threat."

This reaction reflects how out of date the U.S. understanding of the situation on the Korean Peninsula really is. In this view, North Korea is simply a threat to be contained or rolled back, while South Korea is a junior ally that can be whipped into line through threats of abandonment.

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The problem is that this perception doesn't jibe with reality on the ground here on the Korean Peninsula. While North Korea remains a military threat, the power differential has shifted so far in favor of Seoul that for Pyongyang to initiate hostilities would be nothing short of suicide. North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons does not fundamentally alter this equation; it simply increases the cost of any attempt at military intervention in the North.

Recognizing this situation, the focus of South Korea's policy toward North Korea has shifted from military containment toward a long-term strategy of engagement and reconciliation aimed at eventual reunification. Nor is that likely to change even if the conservatives win the December presidential election. The Grand National Party's new North Korea policy also shifts from a security-first focus to more emphasis on engagement, while all the party's candidates endorsed some form of engagement during their foreign policy debate.

Simply put, engaging North Korea has surpassed the maintenance of the alliance with the United States as South Korea's primary foreign policy concern. The combination of economic development and democratization means that the South Korean system is more stable and robust than at any time in its past history, and it no longer needs American support for its very existence. While retaining strong ties with the United States remains an important goal for Seoul, it no longer rises to the level of the existential.

As for the summit itself, it is already being dismissed in some quarters as nothing more than a cynical attempt by the lame-duck President Roh Moo-hyun to influence the upcoming election. While that undoubtedly is a motivating factor, the summit does have the potential to contribute to peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula if handled properly. In addition to progress on long-standing inter-Korean issues, such as railway connections and family reunions, look for Roh to try to get Kim Jong-il to accept South Korea as a negotiating partner for a peace treaty to replace the woefully outdated 1953 Armistice Agreement. Historically, North Korea has maintained that since Seoul did not sign the Armistice Agreement, the proper parties to a new agreement are Pyongyang and Washington. Getting Kim to reverse that stance would only further shift the balance of power toward South Korea.

If Washington really wants better policy coordination with Seoul, it needs to recognize this new reality and readjust its own goals on the peninsula. After all, it is South Korea -- not the United States or Japan -- that will be most heavily impacted by what happens to North Korea in the future. And Washington has a historical obligation to support South Korea's ambition for ending the division that the U.S. helped to create.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Timothy Savage

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