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The multifaceted character of the Korean problem and the uneven progress made by its protagonists were once again on display last week.

U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials sat down in Seoul to plan strategy regarding North Korea, while South Korea’s emissaries headed north to pursue talks with Pyongyang on issues ranging from future family exchanges to the legal framework for economic cooperation and measures to reduce military tension.

Meanwhile, Tokyo and Pyongyang were just concluding another round of normalization talks, and North Korea’s No. 2 official headed for New York — before turning back at Frankfurt, Germany — to attend the U.N. Millennium Summit.

There, had he continued on, he would have joined with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in another round of inter-Korean summitry, with both sides cooperating in the preparation of a U.N. statement endorsing the Korean summit’s principles on reconciliation and reunification.

Paradoxically, however, while the ground may be shaking, the political landscape remains starkly familiar.

A sense of surrealism prevails at the end of a trimester of unprecedented activity — including an inter-Korean summit, two followup ministerial meetings and an emotionally charged and symbolically laden set of family reunions in Seoul and Pyongyang. All in all, it has been a period without precedent in the half-century history of the two Koreas.

Now that the process of change is under way, the core question is how it will play out. It requires, above all, that we remain acutely sensitive to the dual dimensions of the Korean problem. While it is up to the two Koreas to set the pace and direction of change, Korea’s great-power neighbors must provide an external environment that supports positive change.

By and large, they are doing so.

Yet it is also true that the two Koreas cannot afford to get too far out in front or to risk incurring the wrath of the other players. For example, China does not want to see the United States achieve an even stronger position than it enjoys today as the Korean Peninsula’s main external security provider. For its part, the U.S. has adopted a lower profile, fearful that precipitous moves might fan the flames of a nascent anti-Americanism, possibly forcing it to downsize or even exit early.

More important, however, is what it has not done, namely to reassure the other powers, principally China and Russia, that they also have important roles to play — along with Japan — in the peninsula’s future security architecture.

Clearly, a diminished North Korean threat calls for a changed security configuration. In essence, while the U.S. will remain actively engaged on the peninsula, both its role and its force structure will have to accommodate greater participation in security arrangements by the other powers. Eventually, the Cold-War based U.S.-South Korean mutual security alliance must give way to a peace mechanism more in tune with the times and more multipolar in conception.

However, this challenge will not be easily met. As always, the great powers have their own political agendas to advance. This is partly a function of geography and would be true even if the Korean Peninsula were under water.

But, more important, it stems from conflicting political interests and ideological preconceptions that have nothing to do with Korea and everything to do with the way the protagonists themselves view the mind-set and policies of their potential adversaries. Both China and Russia view the continued presence of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula, even after reunification, in a negative light, seeing it as likely to destabilize the region. Further, they cling to the concept of multipolarity in the face of U.S. regional supremacy.

Moreover, even if they might prefer not to, the two Koreas will be forced to take into account existing asymmetries regarding the way the great powers view them. In particular, the fact is that the U.S. and Japan are pursuing a policy of one-sidedness in favor of the South (an outgrowth of the Korean War and the South’s postwar role as a security bulwark), whereas China and Russia favor evenhandedness in dealing with both Koreas on a more or less equal footing, thereby positioning themselves to serve as diplomatic intermediaries for the longer term.

If this trend continues, the international community will find it difficult to support the process of emerging Korean rapprochement and may wind up smothering rather than sustaining it.

This would be a real tragedy, given the distance the two Koreas have traveled in such a short time. Nevertheless, the recent missile-defense standoff stands as a stark warning of how, as in the past, conflicting American and Russian (as well as Chinese) security interests could once again impose themselves on the peninsula, and just how great a danger they pose to further progress toward reconciliation.

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