- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2001

The Bush administrations comprehensive, top-level review of U.S. policy toward the Korean peninsula (currently under way, and slated for conclusion this summer) could hardly be taking place at a more opportune moment. A number of decisions about Korean affairs by the previous American foreign policy team fairly cry out for scrutiny. No less important, because the security environment in Northeast Asia is in the midst of profound change, developments in the Korean peninsula may soon present Washington with great new dangers or new opportunities. Such contingencies require serious long-range thinking by responsible policy-makers.
In the not-so-distant past, Korea was akin to an anvil upon which the Great Powers of the Pacific China, Japan, Russia and the United States wielded their hammers to forge world history, often to tragic effect. (Between 1880 and 1955, recall, three Great Power wars were fought on Korean soil.) Today, by contrast, Korea looks increasingly positioned to act deliberately or inadvertently as a driver of international events.
On the immediate horizon, North Koreas quest to develop an arsenal of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and the ballistic missile systems to target distant countries with these deadly devices threatens to alter the security calculus that has maintained stability and peace in the North Pacific region for the past five decades.
But still greater Korean challenges to international peace and stability may also lie in store. Divided Koreas two-state structure is under steadily mounting internal pressures, due to South Koreas successes and systemic North Korean failures. Indefinite continuation of the now-familiar two-state arrangement in the Korean peninsula is no longer a foregone conclusion. Clearly, termination of that arrangement could entail terrible upheavals, with repercussions reverberating well beyond the confines of the Korean peninsula. Coping with radical change in Korea, and devising a new architecture for peace and prosperity in a very different Korea from the one we know today, may be urgent tasks confronting the Pacific powers and the international community in the uncertain years ahead.
Are we up to the task? There probably has been no previous period in modern history when animosities between all of the great powers of the Pacific were as attenuated as they are today or when the international structure of security and economic relations so encouraged national advance through commercial cooperation and international economic integration among them. At the same time, however, challenges to peace, stability and prosperity could easily arise in the decades ahead as a result of tensions or failures within the regions post-Cold War order. Globalization does not forestall the possibility of international conflict even major conflicts between major economic actors. History is replete with examples of national directorates that made fatefully bad choices when better options were available to them.
Coping with dramatic change in Korea will require not only planning in Washington, but cooperation wherever possible with other powers. The United States and China, for example, do not have identical views on the Korea issue but have basic interests in common; hence, cooperation has been possible on key matters. The possibilities for future cooperation in Korea, however, will depend crucially upon the overall tenor of relations between the two governments which is to say that tensions between Washington and Beijing over seemingly unrelated issues could seriously limit the prospects for constructive Sino-American cooperation in the Korean peninsula.
Post-communist Moscow, for its part, has been something less than a consummate promoter of its own diplomatic advantage in the region. Russia now suffers marginalization not just in Korea but in the entire East Asian diplomatic arena and much of the explanation for this predicament lies in the conduct of Russian foreign policy itself. Russian security interests are arguably consonant with both close cooperation with the United States, Japan and South Korea, and with American leadership in the regional security structure but it may be incumbent upon American statesmen to persuade their Russian counterparts of the fact, so as to prevent resentful sentiment from standing in the way of mutually beneficial cooperation.
Then there is Japan a great Pacific power in its own right, and the United States most important partner in East Asia. Japan is an economic colossus with vital concerns next door but remarkably little leeway for independent action, given its historical legacy, its postwar polity, and the narrow international channel that contemporary Japanese policy-makers wish to navigate. Paradoxically, American policy may prove key to enlightened promotion of Japanese national interests for some time to come.
In Washington and elsewhere, policy-makers and strategists seem to be more comfortable positing a continuation of the Korea status quo than contemplating what alternative Korean futures might portend for national interests. The factors accounting for a lack of forward thinking about Korea at this relatively calm juncture in world affairs are entirely understandable. To explain the phenomenon, however, is not to excuse it. Policy-makers are always at a disadvantage when they are taken by surprise by the rush of events. Given Koreas importance in contemporary world affairs, and some of the plausible problems that the peninsula could face in the not-distant future, the costs of Korean "surprises" for inadequately prepared governments with interests in the region at stake could prove to be especially high.

Nick Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt chair at the American Enterprise Institute. Richard J. Ellings is president of the National Bureau of Asian Research.


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