New Vistas for Korea

August 16, 1994

Could the prolonged crisis over North Korea's nuclear policy be the catalyst to eventual reunification of the peninsula? This enticing prospect, once as seemingly remote as the fall of the Berlin Wall, arises from South Korea's offer to build two light-water reactors for its neighbor to the north as its part of the U.S. effort to choke off North Korea's atomic bomb-making potential.

The agreement, announced over the past weekend, held out the promise that North Korea might seal the nuclear reprocessing facility now the focus of U.S. concern in return for outside help in securing a transitional fuel supply and the construction of more modern, less dangerous nuclear power plants. South Korea's president, Kim Young Sam, quickly followed up with an offer of extensive military and technical help -- an offer to which the new regime in Pyongyang has not yet responded.

Much tough, intricate diplomacy will have to be traversed before any of this comes to fruition. As Mark Matthews, The Sun's diplomatic correspondent has reported, American negotiators have not yet obtained any assurance from North Korea about the handling of 8,000 nuclear fuel rods now in liquid storage that could be the source of sufficient plutonium to make five additional nuclear weapons. These fuel rods are an economical or security disaster waiting to happen. Both sides in the dispute should urgently seek a solution.

Another unsolved problem has to do with the degree of North Korea's adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The U.S. still insists that all suspect North Korean nuclear facilities should be subject to "special inspections" by the International Atomic Energy Agency -- an approach Pyongyang contends would violate its sovereignty. It seems to us that adroit use of other terms could produce an arrangement that would enable both sides to move ahead on the more substantive issues they confront.

The U.S. goal is to remain steadfast in enforcing international controls to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. North Korea's regime is trying to preserve itself from economic collapse. South Korea senses that reunification is coming, therefore wants to inherit a North Korea that will not be the burden that East Germany was for West Germany.

If one blots out the Cold War past, the terrible war that killed so many Americans and Koreans in the 1950-53 war and the ideological conditioning of Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, one can see that the policy imperatives of all three involved powers are not incompatible. If South Korea should build nuclear power plants in North Korea, a slow process of integration could begin. It might not be as dramatic or traumatic as German reunification, which would be a good thing. And from the U.S. vantage point, Korea could gradually disappear as a flashpoint of war while becoming a prime example of the advantages that can accrue to a pariah regime when it chooses to become a cooperative member of the international community.

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