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The Future of Inter-Korean Relations: 

from Vicious Circle to Virtuous Cycle.

by Leonid A. Petrov

Presented at the international conference Enhancing Security, Cooperation and Peace on the Korean Peninsula, Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies, Honolulu, 27-29 January 2004.  

Published in The Korea University Newsletter (February 2004)

In IR theory a predicament, which lies at the core of an arms race or an impasse, which creates the difficulty in finding a peaceful resolution that would in the end benefit both conflicting sides by increasing their security without endangering each other is called “security dilemma”. 

Those entrapped in it are guided by the truncated understanding of dynamic interaction, looking only at the actions by the other side and overlooking their own. A negotiated solution to the dilemma is cautioned against for fear that it should amount to “rewarding a bad behaviour” and that the solution might be exploited by the adversary who is suspected of using an agreement to disarm one side while keeping its own arms. At the heart of the security dilemma logic lies a clash of identities. 

In other words, argues Professor Suh Jae-jung (Cornell University), the ongoing standoff between Pyongyang and Washington is nothing else but another example of the security dilemma. This vicious circle of recriminations is based on the master narratives of “dangerous North Korea”, on the one hand, and “greedy American warmongers”, on the other. The solution to this particular security dilemma, therefore, lies in understanding of how real the “North Korean threat” and the “US threat” are.

Security dilemmas are usually exacerbated, leading to open military conflicts, if the actors don’t realise that they have been trapped in it. Conversely, if either side makes the first move to go down the ladder, the escalating pressure of the security dilemma can be reduced, leading the other side to take a reciprocating step. Such steps would create a virtuous cycle of de-escalating the tension, which ultimately would contribute to the breakdown of the security dilemma.

A so-called “balance of threat” or “balance of terror” (as it has been named by Prof. Hamm Taik-young of the IFES, Kyungnam University) is being maintained between the US-ROK alliance and the DPRK. The “balance of terror” over the Korean peninsula keeps both Koreas and the United States from initiating a military aggression for the initiator faces the certainty of punishment whose cost would be politically unbearable. Under such a condition, full-scale war is an option for neither of the involved parties. 

Since the US is in a relatively more secure position than North Korea, it should be able to make the first move in US-DPRK dialogue. Given the combustible atmosphere in the inter-Korean relations, the North also should be able to make the first move as the initiator of the “nuclear program”. Only when the two are willing to get rid of their Manichean view of the other and to return to the principle of reciprocity will they be able to get out of the stalemate. 

The vicious circle of mistrust was first broken by the 1994 Agreed Framework, in which each side to the confrontation not only recognised its adversary’s security concerns but also took measures to allay them. Further progress was made when Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il held a summit in June 2000, moving the two Koreas closer to amity. Clinton, who planned a summit meeting with the North Korean leader, prepared the final step in the peace offensive. But this move was effectively stalled and completely reverted by the Bush administration.

Now is the time for both Koreas and the US to acknowledge that they are entrapped in a vicious circle of security dilemma. The acknowledgement would constitute the first step out of the dilemma. Given Seoul’s growing military superiority over Pyongyang the South is already preparing to scrap its plans for weapons purchases and adopt the doctrine of self-reliant defence system. Washington, the major weapons supplier to the South, should also be prepared to stop reinforcement of the USFK or withdraw it completely.

But in order to ultimately stop the dominance of “threat” or “terror” in the inter-Korean relations, it is necessary to end the Korean War, which was only suspended by the Armistice Agreement of 1953. Despite Pyongyang’s insistence that Seoul is not a party to the future Peace Treaty, it is legitimate to argue that Seoul’s de facto, if not de jure, status has to be acknowledged. A peace regime on the Korean peninsula cannot be built if the South is not involved as a full and legitimate party.

Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang should adopt a document that would lay out a comprehensive set of measures that each commits itself to end the state of war. Seoul and Pyongyang have already made progress on this front: they signed a non-aggression pact in 1991 and held a summit in 2000. It is now up to Pyongyang and Washington to take meaningful measures to end the state of war.

Washington regards the Korean armistice as the cornerstone of the US alliance system in Northeast Asia and therefore untouchable. In the situation where it is virtually heresy even to raise the issue, let alone discuss a detailed road plan toward ending the armistice, one possible way to resolve the differences seems to lie in a set of simultaneous non-aggression pacts between the parties to the Korean War.

In Northeast Asia, a simple acceptance of power politics provides no guarantee for peace. The tripartite militarisation (US, ROK, and Japan) would only precipitate negative reactions from the region, and possibly trigger a new arms race and even a war. To address the non-proliferation and allay security concerns, both the North and the South must radically disarm, with support from surrounding powers (China, Russia, and Japan). Then, Korea has to be peacefully unified in a form that will not upset the power balance among the four powers (China, Japan, Russia, and the US).

The involvement of three powers (China, Japan and Russia) is essential for a Northeast Asia-wide regime of restraints in arms transfers to the Korean peninsula and for a regional agreement to make the peninsula a nuclear free zone. The US troops in unified Korea won’t be tolerated by Russia or China. All four powers (China, Japan, Russia and US) have vital stake in peace on the peninsula, and therefore they still prefer a divided Korea that no single power controls to a unified Korea under the lopsided influence of one of them.

To resolve the security dilemma and to build peace in the region, a new security framework is needed, the one that would emphasise less the centrality of power politics and more importance of multilateral interactions among countries of Northeast Asia. Arms transfers from the US to South Korea must be discontinued. An initiative for peace talks must be coupled with a blueprint for reducing the centrality of military transactions within the military alliances.

If the peace process is intensified through the successful implementation of these mechanisms, the two Koreas may be able to enter a qualitatively higher level of inter-Korean dialogue. That may produce a confederal or federal form of political integration between the two Koreas. 

Also, the multilateral peace talks, which began as a specific forum for peace on the Korean peninsula, could develop into a region-wide security forum for Northeast Asia, shifting the forum to a higher level of peace mission for all East Asia. As it expands in scope, it may develop into a multilateral common security organization similar to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But this is not the end of the story.

The current economic surge in Northeast Asia, argues Professor Lee Su-hoon (SNS & IFES, Kyungnam University), maybe seriously hindered unless a sustainable peace in the region is established. In this context stability or otherwise on the Korean peninsula is the key element. In order to build a peace regime on the Korean peninsula (and thus realise the idea of peace in NEA), the ongoing North Korea nuclear crisis has to be resolved, preferably through peaceful means. 

Sooner or later, North Korea will abandon its nuclear program because, given the realities of security dilemma, it will not help the DPRK achieve its intended goals of regime security and economic rehabilitation any way. Rather, they are likely to inhibit Pyongyang’s incorporation into the NEA economic community. Currently, South Korea is promising to lead the reform of North Korea’s dilapidated economy in exchange for Pyongyang’s halting of its nuclear and missile programs and limiting its arms purchases. 

This goal of denuclearisation is a long-term project. In order to achieve this goal, the six-partite talks should continue and demonstrate substantial progress. The talks themselves are not temporary phenomenon, but should be sustained as a pseudo-institution that can be transformed into a more institutionalised body, such as a Multilateral Peace and Security Council (MPSC) in NEA. 

This proposal certainly should not devaluate the bilateral cooperation in security that has been taking place in the region. For example, Russia and China, along with its immediate neighbours to the west, have already created the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to counter terrorism, extremism and separatism in the region. Symbolically, a recent SCO meeting in Sep.2003 saw its members signing the Multilateral Economic and Trade Cooperation (METC) agreement, which is the first step towards the final goal of establishing a SCO “free-trade zone” or “modern Silk Road”.

Economic cooperation between the countries of NEA is the best ground for peace and security in the region. To deepen and foster commerce and trade even further, bilateral Free Trade Agreements need to be concluded across the region. Individually, the three markets of China, Korea and Japan could never match that of the US or EU. Grouped together, they would account for 24% of the global population and 18% of the global GDP. 

A new NEA Development Bank could fund regional projects (i.e. gas pipelines construction, regional grid interconnection work, cross-border rail and road linkage projects, etc.) and, ultimately, enhance security by fostering prosperity. The “Iron Silk Road”, if stretched from Japan to Europe and linking the Trans-Korean Railway and Trans-Siberian Railroad, would enhance healthy industrial competition and business cooperation. In that case, North Korea would enjoy transit royalties, which could create a significant source of revenue to help its rehabilitation efforts in social and economic sectors.

What North Korea really wants is for the international community to rescue its economy. Therefore, multilateral cooperation in the transport and energy sectors should equally be viewed as a valuable means of not only improving regional energy chains and economic cooperation, but also regional security. In other words, once the security dilemma in the inter-Korean relations is resolved and the vicious circle is exited, the virtuous cycle of multilateral investments, exploration of abundant natural reserves, cooperation on the construction of new railways, gas and oil pipelines would form a viable means of opening the era of peace and prosperity for all countries of Northeast Asia.   

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