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Special to The Japan Times

SEOUL — One hundred years of tumultuous history have come to a close with the end of a century that has witnessed the end of great power dominance on the Korean Peninsula and the beginnings of Korean political reawakening. China, Russia, Japan and the United States together have, in turn, intruded into Korea’s internal affairs and imposed their own political regimes or exercised political control indirectly through the manipulation of Korean political leaders. The U.S. still provides the military underpinning for the Peninsula’s security architecture, a role that the other major powers and the South Koreans have come to accept as a natural part of the security landscape. Today, a U.S. military presence is favored by both Seoul and Washington, and is projected to remain even after unification.

In addition, the U.S. should be credited with playing a leading role in the democratization of South Korea,. Efforts by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Gaston Sigur from 1986-87 forced popular presidential elections on a reluctant military, thus paying the way for the election of an opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung, a decade later. This was perhaps America’s finest hour during the entire post-Korean War period, having previously been overly tolerant of the excesses of military rule during the Cold War in the interests of national security.

In the coming century, Korea will doubtless complete its transition from Hermit Kingdom to a modern, unified nation-state. It is the latter division that has inspired the South’s drive to economic dynamism and development; it has also left Seoul’s place in the international political pecking-order indeterminate and the region’s security unstable.

The two Koreas are entering a period of sustained informal interaction that could eventually lead to productive government-to-government dialogue, provided creative diplomatic initiatives are crafted and political conditions are ripe for them to bear fruit. In the near term, therefore, the possibility exists of coordinated undertakings of a “win-win” variety, such as fielding a joint soccer team for the 2002 World Cup and other sports, cultural and economic exchanges. Nonetheless, it would be unrealistic to expect reconciliation anytime soon given existing political impediments, and until unification actually takes place, the attendant regional instability will persist.

Two other major changes are in the offing. By 2020, if APEC’s Bogor goals are realized, Korea will be part of a vast Asia-Pacific free trade and investment area. In addition, it is possible that long before either, China, Japan and Korea will have progressed to the point where they form the nucleus of — in combination with ASEAN — an East Asian common market, finally bringing to fruition the Northeast “bridge-builder” role to which Korea has always aspired, as well as enhancing the prospects for a Northeast Asian security structure.

The most problematic area in the new century is in the security sphere. Here history is a poor guide. Traditionally, the mode of projecting power on the Peninsula by the great powers has been one of dominance. Yet the new century will permit only the exercise of political influence, not physical domination or indirect political control. Thus, the overall prospect is for greater uncertainty and complexity, but with a substantially reduced likelihood of conflict.

At the same time, Korea is no longer the exclusive or even primary focus of the great powers, who have already begun to decouple their security concerns from their bilateral relations. Today, no single power has a monopoly over developments on the Peninsula or is in a position to unilaterally set the policy agenda. Nevertheless, all four major powers (China, Russian, Japan and the U.S.) support the South’s sunshine policy and genuinely desire peace and security, although the Cold War security structure that Seoul has pledged to end remains intact. This could only occur on the basis of a tradeoff of some kind, either through a successful outcome to four-party talks and a new peace treaty and peace mechanism or the implementation of the 1991 Basic Agreement providing for nonaggression, reconciliation, exchange and cooperation and the reduction and redeployment of all military forces, including those of the U.S.

A quarter-century ago, then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger envisaged the possibility of such an outcome, and pledged the U.S. to a communique recognizing one Korea in the context of the successful negotiation of alternative armistice arrangements between the two Koreas. In the coming century, the odds favor China playing a comparable diplomatic broker’s role. Recent statements by the Chinese ambassador to North Korea noting that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea “is an issue that will have to be settled by the involved nations parties at an appropriate time” echoes a similar North Korean demand at four-party talks.

If China can persuade North Korea to go forward with the implementation of the Basic Agreement, in exchange for a Chinese guarantee of security, the outlines of a “deal-making” scenario come into view. The present South Korean government is favorably disposed toward China as a diplomatic intermediary vis-a-vis Pyongyang, Indeed, according to Seoul’s foreign minister, “in the coming decade, China will become as important to Korea as the U.S.” Under such circumstances, South Korea might well decide that forgoing a U.S. military presence — given an offsetting Chinese security guarantee vis-a-vis North Korea — would be the best way of ending the Cold War structure on the Peninsula as well as the most effective means of preserving South Korean security in the future.

In addition to the U.S. and China, Japan and Russia also have constructive roles to play. However, while Tokyo has become visibly more active and important in the wake of last year’s North Korean missile launch, a large financial contribution to Korean Economic Development Organization and prospective normalization with North Korea, the latter has been attempting to strike the right balance in its relations between Seoul and Pyongyang so as to advance its credentials as a diplomatic intermediary, albeit thus far unsuccessfully.

For the first time in a half century. South Korea is pursuing an independent foreign-policy course. It is an ambitious policy agenda that demonstrates that South Korea has come of age politically, confident of its abilities to manage its own affairs independently, and, most importantly, that its security and well-being are best guaranteed by a mutually reinforcing network of structures and relationships. It is not playing the major powers against each other, rather it is ensuring that no one of their voices becomes dominant in Korean decision-making. And here history provides an excellent guide on what to avoid, if not how to do so.

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