Korean unification may take a long time

June 25, 2000|By Dov S. Zakheim

WASHINGTON -- A wave of euphoria has swept over Washington in the wake of the Korean summit.

Untroubled by the absence of any specific moves by Pyongyang, other than to have hosted the summit itself, the Clinton administration has rushed to lift all sanctions on the North that have been in place for more than 50 years.

Some Washington analysts are already speculating about the withdrawal of American troops from the South. Others are stressing the sheer pointlessness of developing new missile defenses against a country that might no longer exist when they are finally deployed.

They argue that the United States is unlikely to field an operational system to defend against North Korean ballistic missiles for at least five years, even under the most favorable conditions. By that time there may not be a North Korea, and even if it still exists as an independent state, circumstances will have changed so drastically that the threat of a missile attack will have disappeared. Indeed, opponents of American ballistic missile defenses point to Pyongyang's reaffirmation of its pledge not to test its missiles as a concrete basis for their optimism.

Those wearing rose-colored glasses would do well to review the course of European dM-itente, however.

It was in 1969 that then-West German Chancellor Willy Brandt's new government officially launched Ostpolitik, which sought to lessen tensions between the two Germanies. The policy had already been foreshadowed by Brandt a few years earlier, just as the 1998 election of Kim Dae Jung led to the announcement of a new "sunshine policy" toward the North.

It took a full two decades for Brandt's opening to the East to achieve its desired result -- the reunification of Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the meantime, the Cold War raged on.

The East Germans continued both to modernize their own forces, and to host some 30 additional Soviet divisions. East Berlin's Soviet patrons deployed new, more menacing ICBMs, conducted massive naval exercises in the Atlantic Ocean and deployed a new Backfire bomber that threatened Europe's precarious nuclear balance.

In 1979, they marched into Afghanistan, forcing even Jimmy Carter to concede that dM-itente was a mirage. In 1981, responding to the increasingly menacing Soviet posture, and a full 12 years after Brandt had sought to reduce tensions between East and West, the United States under Ronald Reagan launched the greatest peacetime buildup in its history. Another nine years had yet to pass before the Berlin Wall finally came down.

It may not take two decades for the two Koreas to merge. But it is unlikely that they will merge anytime soon, or indeed, that relations between them will become sufficiently amicable to justify a reconsideration of America's force posture in Asia. To begin with, even if Pyongyang sought reunification, the North Korean economy is so weak that Seoul, having seen Germany pay a decade-long price for integrating a much stronger East German economy, is in no rush to rescue North Korea from itself.

Moreover, there is no indication that the North has the slightest interest in altering its military posture. Like the Vopos who never gave an inch along the inner-German border until 1990, Pyongyang's artillery remains rooted in the Demilitarized Zone between the Koreas, with no indication that it will be withdrawn anytime soon. North Korea's ballistic missile marketing program likewise remains intact, with Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic reportedly a potentially interested new customer.

Washington should certainly welcome the summit's outcome and applaud any progress that derives from it. But the United States should be careful not to overreact by anticipating changes in North Korean behavior for which there is not a shred of evidence.

Those who wish to follow upon the hasty lifting of sanctions with new thinking about our military role on the Korean peninsula should pause to catch their breath. They would do well to recall that while Willy Brandt lived long enough to witness the reunification of his beloved Berlin, not only he, but even his successor, Helmut Schmidt, had long since resigned as chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Dov S. Zakheim is chief executive officer of SPC International Corp. in Arlington, Va., and was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

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