- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 31, 2000

South Korea yesterday proposed regular military-to-military contacts with North Korea, the latest sign of the extraordinarily fluid security debate enveloping the divided peninsula.

The offer, made by South Korean Unification Minister Park Jae-Kyu on the second of three days of Cabinet-level talks in Pyongyang, comes amid reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is showing a new openness to allowing some 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea to remain indefinitely.

"Let's have minister- or working-level military talks to take concrete, full-scale measures to restore trust," Mr. Park said, according to pool reports by South Korean reporters accompanying his 35-member delegation.

"Both Koreas could discuss the exchanges of military information and personnel, and cooperation in relinking a railway" across the heavily fortified border, Mr. Park said.

U.S. officials meanwhile reacted cautiously to the report that the North Korean leader believed it was "desirable" for U.S. troops to remain on the peninsula, even if the two Koreas eventually reconcile.

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, in an interview published yesterday in The Washington Post, relayed his North Korean counterpart's comments from their path-breaking June 13-15 summit when the conversation turned to future defense arrangements after a possible reconciliation.

The Clinton administration has welcomed the unexpected warming of relations between the South and the North but has tried to dampenexpectations that cuts in the U.S. military presence on the peninsula are even being contemplated at this stage.

Beyond protecting Seoul against attack from the communist North, the American troops are seen as a potent symbol of U.S. commitment to the region and a check to the ambitions of South Korea's neighbors.

A State Department official, speaking on background yesterday, said the United States hopes the process begun with the June summit will "reduce tensions and improve relations" between the two countries.

But the U.S. troop presence in South Korea is "something for the United States and South Korean governments to determine," the official said. "We believe that the U.S. forces continue to contribute to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula."

Analysts say North Korea's new diplomatic offensive leaves a large number of questions unanswered.

State Department Counselor Wendy Sherman yesterday was in Moscow seeking more details on another Kim Jong-il initiative a conditional offer made to Russian President Vladimir Putin in July to give up his country's missile program in exchange for Western help launching its commercial satellites.

The North Korean leader later said he as "only joking" in making the proposal, but Russian diplomats insist it was made in earnest.

The United States, South Korean and Japanese officials are expected to take up the matter again tomorrow at a meeting in Seoul.

Kim Jong-il's apparent openness to the presence of U.S. troops on a lasting basis plays into delicate calculations being made across northeastern Asia. The prospect of a reunited Korea would have profound ramifications for Russia, Japan, China and the United States in the bid for influence in the region.

While Pyongyang has regularly denounced the U.S. forces in the South as an "occupying army," Kim Jong-il's reported comments voice openly what many privately have been saying that the U.S. troops in effect provide a bulwark for both North and South Korea against potentially hostile moves by its neighbors.

"In a sense, Koreans on both sides of the border know they're trapped in a bad neighborhood," said Cato Institute analyst Doug Bandow, who has just published an analysis urging a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula.

"The United States is the most benign outside power that is a major player in the region," he said.

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