- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2000

U.S. officials Thursday insisted that this week's path-breaking summit between North and South Korea will have no short-term effect on American defense commitments in Asia or on security policy at home.

But a serious thaw after a half-century of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula let alone the ultimate reunification of North and South would scramble some fundamental assumptions for the United States and every major East Asian power.

"Aside from the United States, I don't know of a single major player in the region who would wholeheartedly welcome a reunification of Korea," said John Curtis Perry, an expert on Asian diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass., who has consulted for the planning arm of the South Korean Foreign Ministry.

"Everybody has grown used to playing the two Koreas off one another," Mr. Perry said. "What do they have to gain from the emergence of a dynamic new power in the region?"

Analysts and policy-makers caution that any serious rapprochement between Seoul and Pyongyang is a long way off and may fall apart as previous efforts over the past 20 years have done.

But the stunning shots of an ebullient Kim Jong-il, North Korea's secretive leader, hosting and toasting Kim Dae-jung, his South Korean counterpart, have only accelerated the pace of diplomacy and bet hedging across northeast Asia.

Even for the United States, the long-range prospect of peace on the peninsula is a mixed blessing.

The 37,000 American troops in South Korea represent the largest contingent of U.S. military forces on the Asian mainland.

Stationed there since the 1950s to protect against an invasion from the North, the U.S. troops serve several unspoken yet equally important roles: as a bulwark against Chinese aggression, as a symbol of U.S. commitment to the region, even as an insurance policy for those who fear the resurgence of a Japanese militarism.

While welcoming the Korean thaw, top U.S. officials Thursday made a point of saying the U.S. troops were not decamping for the foreseeable future.

"It's probably premature to leap to any conclusions" about cutting U.S. troop levels in South Korea, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday.

While Pyongyang plainly hopes to use the South Korea talks to eventually oust the American troops, even a discussion of the issue "is a long way off," South Korean Ambassador Lee Hong-koo told the Associated Press.

The idea of a more accommodating Pyongyang also poses awkward questions for U.S. military planners considering a national missile defense (NMD). North Korea's launch of a three-stage rocket over Japan in 1998 made it the principal "rogue state" the controversial defense system is supposed to deter.

With President Clinton facing a decision this fall on whether to proceed with NMD, administration officials said the warmth of this week's summit did not mean the North Korean threat could be dismissed.

"Notwithstanding the historic and promising nature of the meeting in Pyongyang, we will make our threat assessment based on actual capabilities and actions that a North Korea takes," said White House spokesman P.J. Crowley.

He added: "Fifty years of tension in the Korean Peninsula do not evaporate based on one meeting."

U.S. officials privately also worry about what one called a "reverse domino" effect: Peace on the Korean Peninsula may in time raise questions about the need for U.S. troops in Japan as well.

The Clinton administration did take some concrete steps Thursday to advance the peace process, putting the final touches on a previously announced move to lift sanctions on some North Korean exports and opening air and shipping routes between the two countries. The initiatives could be formally announced as early as next week.

The United States also announced a 50,000-ton food donation for North Korea, to be distributed through the United Nations' World Food Program.

China, Russia and Japan, traditional rivals for influence in the region, have all put out serious diplomatic feelers to Pyongyang in recent months.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin hosted Kim Jong-il for a three-day visit last month and Russian President Vladimir Putin will make the first visit ever by a Russian (or Soviet) leader to Pyongyang on his way to next month's Group of Eight summit in Okinawa, Japan.

Many suspect that China has pushed Pyongyang into the summit as a wedge to replace the United States as the principal power broker on the peninsula.

Beijing watched with deep dismay when the 1998 North Korean missile test only served to drive South Korea and Japan closer to the United States. While its short-term interests on the Korean Peninsula may dovetail with those of Washington, in the long run the two great powers could be headed for a clash.

"China is bent on shaping a longer-term strategic partnership against the United States in Asia," Lee Jong Seok, a veteran North Korea watcher for the leading South Korean government think tank, told the Far Eastern Economic Review last week.

Mr. Putin, who plans two trips to Japan this summer in a bid to repair the still-frosty Russo-Japanese relationship, also will be trying to regain some of the influence Russia enjoyed in North Korea during the Cold War.

"Russia is seeking to edge out China as the main supporter of North Korea, weakening Beijing's influence in East Asia and asserting its own," according to a recent analysis by the Texas-based policy-analysis firm Stratfor.

And a more-reasonable sounding Pyongyang provides another argument against the U.S. missile defense shield concept, which both Russia and China oppose.

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