Who Wins, Who Loses as the Koreas Start Kissing

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There is, as ever, more at stake in Korea than simply Korea, and the breakthrough summit between the leaders of North and South signals a changing game for all the players on this most dangerous of Cold War chessboards. The Korean War, which ended with a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty 47 years ago, was fought less because Koreans themselves couldn't get along than because the West, Russia and China were jostling to expand their "spheres of influence." The end of the Cold War has opened new opportunities for the Koreans to contemplate reunification. But the German model of West absorbing East is unlikely to apply to two powerful states who have been on the verge of war for the past five decades to avoid precisely that scenario. And the end of the Cold War hasn't eliminated competition between the outside powers with a stake in the Korean conflict. Here's how the new détente may affect the different players:


While publicly enthusiastic over the new North-South détente, the U.S. is also aware that it has emerged on the initiative of the Koreans themselves, under the tutelage of Beijing. Whereas South Korea has much to gain from rebuilding North Korea's decrepit economy — and its people nurture a deep, emotive desire to reunite the divided peninsula — the U.S. has more immediate concerns, such as stopping the North Korean missile and nuclear programs. Although Washington has committed itself, at South Korea's prodding, to lift many sanctions against North Korea, the U.S. perspective on the new détente will be shaped later this month when it resumes direct talks with North Korea over missiles. Long-term peace on the peninsula would certainly allow the U.S. to remove 37,000 troops from harm's way along the world's most potentially volatile border. But that would also lose Washington a key foothold in any future conflict scenario in the region against either China or Russia.


Presiding over inter-Korean peace has multiple advantages for the Chinese: South Korea has become a major investor in China's newly capitalist economy, and Beijing is hoping that delivering a more pliant Pyongyang to the negotiating table — as China appears to have done — will cement its ties with Seoul. Besides transferring responsibility for the North Korean basket-case economy to Seoul, it also raises China's prestige as a responsible and powerful regional problem-solver. Beijing wouldn't be at all sad to see the departure of all those U.S. troops from its doorstep, and it would look to the long-term reunification of two mortal-enemy Korean states as a model for its own relationship with Taiwan.


It was the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it a steady flow of cheap oil, that sent North Korea's economy into precipitous decline during the '90s. But while Moscow left Pyongyang to its own devices — and China's — for most of the Yeltsin years, President Vladimir Putin has signaled renewed interest in the Korean peninsula by planning to become the first major head of state to visit Pyongyang in the South Koreans' wake. Russia, too, stands to gain from South Korean investments, and its own longstanding territorial conflicts with Japan (over the Kuril Islands) increase the importance of strengthening its influence in the Koreas — as does Moscow's traditional rivalry with Beijing. And Putin's campaign against the planned U.S. missile defense system will be helped by efforts to rehabilitate Washington's favorite "rogue state."


South Korea is one of Asia's long-term economic success stories, and North Korea represents opportunities for its economic expansion into a global powerhouse. A majority of its electorate clearly favors moves toward reunification, which has always been a central theme of President Kim Dae Jung's political platform, and skeptics will have been quieted by the overwhelming enthusiasm the summit generated among South Koreans. But once the dewy afterglow has subsided, years of tough negotiations lie ahead, and Seoul will be in no hurry to relinquish U.S. protection in the interim. And Seoul has it reasons in taking things slowly: South Korea is only beginning to emerge from an economic slump, and even in the unlikely even that Pyongyang were amenable, it can't afford to simply absorb North Korea in the way West Germany did East Germany. Instead, Seoul will be content to take small political steps over a number of years, while expanding investment and aid — and never entirely dropping its guard.


Economic catastrophe, famine and the cozying up of its principal patrons — Moscow and Beijing — to South Korea left Dear Leader Kim Jong Il little choice but to make nice with President Kim Dae Jung. But it remains to be seen whether Kim's Chinese patrons have convinced him to emulate their "socialism with Chinese characteristics" (i.e., capitalism under Communist party dictatorship), or whether he's simply going through the motions to improve his geopolitical position and attract more aid. After all, the worst military confrontation between North and South since the 1953 cease-fire took place barely a year ago, when a Northern vessel that had infiltrated Southern waters was sunk. Still, there was no mistaking the message of reconciliation in the atmospherics he generated during the Pyongyang summit, and his acceptance of an invitation to visit Seoul. Either way, he's not about to allow an influx of foreign influences to undermine his country's monolithic Stalinist ideology, so don't expect to see the Golden Arches popping up alongside Pyongyang's Juche Tower anytime soon. Indeed, even the long-term perspective on reunification may be less likely to resemble the two Germanys than the "one country, two systems" under which Beijing reincorporated Hong Kong.