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A Look At Relations With North Korea - 2004-07-05

The Third Scenario, a new South Korean novel, deals scornfully with the enemy. Only it is not North Korea. It is the United States, which engineers a war between the two Koreas to satisfy its global ambitions. The New York Times reports that in three weeks the novel has sold one point six million copies.

That reflects a dramatic shift in public opinion in South Korea and perhaps a similar change in tightly controlled opinion in North Korea. So it seemed to Donald Gregg, chairman of the Korea Society and a former U.S. ambassador to Korea, on a recent visit to Seoul:

"I had never seen North and South Koreans interact in Seoul before. It was a very natural process. Both sides spoke of Koreans as being one race with thousands of years of history, divided by outside influences and would not be prevented by outside influences from reunifying." Reunification seemed remote after the 1950-53 war between the two Koreas with the United States fighting for the south. But many Koreans kept the idea in mind and today it has fully emerged, at least among younger people.

There is a distinct generational split, says Ambassador Gregg. The older generation remains suspicious of the communist north. The younger wants to cooperate with it and resents the United States for standing in the way. The presence of U.S. troops is especially galling:

"The younger generation thinks we are an impediment to reunification. They are still very concerned about the accidental killing of two young girls during the World Cup in 2002. They see us as an inconvenience. They would like to have most if not all of the troops out."

That is all very well, says Victor Cha, professor of government at Georgetown University. It is now politically correct to view North Korea as conciliatory rather than confrontational. But a large obstacle remains:

"It bumps up against a U.S. view of North Korea that has changed from a country that posed a regional security threat to allies during the Cold War to a country that now potentially is a failed state with WMD and one of the targets of the war on terrorism."

The United States and North Korea are currently at an impasse on the nuclear issue. North Korea wants and needs economic aid fast to avoid disaster. For that, the U.S. price is dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Recent negotiations on the issue in Beijing made little headway.

So far, says Professor Cha, South Korea has done most of the giving. It is trying to close the huge economic gap between the two countries by helping to revive North Korea's farm sector, railroads and electric power system. Several thousand South Koreans visited North Korea last year, while slightly over a thousand North Koreans were allowed to go south. Still, that was more than before.

Above all, says Professor Cha, only South Korea has reduced its military. So the security system on the peninsula remains unchanged. The fear may be gone, but not the facts on the ground. North Korea, in his opinion, has no rival as a closed, dictatorial state:

"Having said that, there are a number of people who have proposed hypotheses that there is a reformist group within North Korea that is pressing for an opening up of the regime in order for the regime to survive. The fact of the matter is we do not know which of these is true, largely because the regime is so opaque."

Will North Korea continue its conciliatory stance? asks Professor Cha. Or will it do something more provocative and dramatic? Its neighbors could be a moderating influence, says Ambassador Gregg. China and Russia, in particular, have been helpful:

"For the first time in modern history China, Russia, Japan and South Korea are at peace with each other, and there is a very friendly outside atmosphere into which North Korea can become more fully integrated. And now is the time to do it."

Ambassador Gregg adds that more experienced U.S. policy-makers are now dealing with North Korea, setting the stage for a possible resolution of the nuclear issue. But as most concede, the outcome still lies with the isolated, enigmatic North.