Saturday, December 11, 1999

Hopes for
reunification of
North and South
Korea recede

Predictions that North Korea
would soon collapse have been
proven wrong as the economy
and military power stabilized

By Richard Halloran
Special to the Star-Bulletin


Seoul - Reunification of the divided Korean peninsula has been put off indefinitely because the once-tottering North Korean regime has been shored up by an improving economy, a firming in its military power and the prospect of better relations with the United States.

The turnaround is striking. A year ago, many officials and economists in Seoul and Washington predicted that North Korea would collapse, or "implode," from nearly a decade of economic disasters. The northern, communist half of the peninsula would then be absorbed by the southern, newly democratic half.

Today most indicators say North Korea will survive. Consequently, the withdrawal of 37,000 U.S. troops from South Korea has been deferred beyond the foreseeable future. Japan has resumed negotiations intended to establish diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang. The balance of power in Northeast Asia has tilted toward China, North Korea's main ally.

In Seoul, President Kim Dae-jung continues his "sunshine" policy of not seeking North Korea's demise, which has considerable support because the cost of reunification would be onerous just as South Korea's economy has begun to recover from two years of troubles. Kim's policy, however, has also generated protests from those for whom reunification is the essence of an emotional nationalism.

What all this does to the chances of war remains impossible to forecast. Bellicose statements emanate regularly from the North Korean capital in Pyongyang. The Korean Central News Agency, which speaks for the regime, said recently: "Though the United States is talking about peace and dialogue with (North Korea), it is no more than a hoax to cover up its true colors as an aggressor."

A week of discussions here with South Korean and U.S. officials, scholars and specialists on North Korea led to these conclusions:

Bullet The economy of North Korea, stricken by human mismanagement and natural disasters, has pulled out of its downward spiral. It is not expected to show growth for the year 1999 but neither is it expected to decline further because it has been propped up by food and other aid from China, Japan, the U.S. and other Western nations.
Bullet The deterioration of the North Korean armed forces has been arrested after three years of disruption caused by lack of food, fuel and supplies. Intelligence reports say that readiness in 1999 has been about the same as in 1998 and more weapons, although of aging technology, have been imported.
Bullet President Clinton, in an approach devised by former Secretary of Defense William Perry, has offered to normalize political and trade relations with North Korea in return for which Pyongyang would eliminate its threat of nuclear weapons and long range missiles. Such relations would help guarantee North Korea's survival.

The North Korean economy had been in a tailspin since 1991, with output having dropped perhaps by half, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1998 alone, it went down 5 percent. Economic ties to the former Soviet Union have collapsed, energy has been in short supply and industry has lacked investment. Most severe, shortages of food have caused 2-3 million deaths in a population of 21 million people.

Rumors of grumbling about President Kim Jong-il have floated out as have reports of fights around military food depots as civilians sought to break in. The CIA has reported, "The leadership has tried to maintain a high level of military spending but the armed forces have nonetheless been affected by the general economic decline."

Foreign aid, especially from China, has kept North Korea on life support. Chinese officials have said privately that Beijing would not allow North Korea to collapse because they don't want a South Korean army on China's border along the Yalu River.

Today, the economic decline has stopped and Kim Jong-il appears to be in firm command. "They'll break even this year," said a U.S. official. "It will be zero percent growth but at least it won't be negative."

That has translated into a halt in North Korea's military decline. Training, which had suffered for three years, has recovered somewhat. More artillery has been deployed in the Pyongyang-Kaesong corridor where it could range on South Korea. Some 40 old MiG-19 fighter planes have been imported from Kazakhstan, formerly part of the Soviet Union.

A South Korean newspaper, Joong-ang Ilbo (English | Korean), has reported that Chinese military advisers have shown up in North Korea. Even so, said a South Korean official, "We have a good warning system and have no clear evidence that they are preparing to do anything massive."

The new U.S. policy was worked out over many months by President Clinton's special envoy, Perry, who conferred repeatedly with South Korean and Japanese leaders to arrive at a tripartite approach, in marked contrast to the unilateral stance so often taken by the Clinton administration in Asia.

Perry recommended a classic carrot and stick approach. The carrot is a proposal that Washington normalize diplomatic relations with Pyongyang and lift trade sanctions in return for verifiable assurances that North Korea had ceased work on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. The stick was left unstated but clearly included economic and military actions intended to contain North Korean threats.

Secretary of Defense William Cohen pointed up North Korea's choices after meeting with the South Korean minister of defense, Cho Seong-tae, in Washington recently. North Korea, he said, "can pursue peace and prosperity for its people through cooperation, or it can continue its isolation through confrontation."

Even though the carrots would seem to be in North Korea's interests, Pyongyang has so far given few signs that it will bite. Some South Koreans are skeptical that the North Koreans will ever negotiate in good faith. "This is just a tactical lull," said an official here, "before they go back to being belligerent again."

Richard Halloran, a former correspondent for
the New York Times, is a freelance writer based in Honolulu

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