WASHINGTON — The real presidential race has finally begun, as Vice President Al Gore and Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush battle over the state of the military. But their focus on questions of morale and readiness ignores the more fundamental issue of security commitments, which require retention of an outsize military.

Neither candidate seems to have noticed that communism has collapsed. Which means we don’t need a Cold War military any more.

Consider the deployment of 37,000 soldiers in South Korea. The June summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung was more successful than almost anyone expected.

The two states have ended hostile propaganda broadcasts across the demilitarized zone and met to plot future cooperation. Other positive signs include Kim Jong Il’s endorsement of Chinese economic reforms, Pyongyang’s participation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum and its increased diplomatic contacts with countries ranging from Australia to Italy.

Optimists are looking toward expanded inter-Korean trade, more family reunification visits, additional aid for the North, and even Pyongyang’s membership in such international organizations as the Asian Development Bank. An exultant Kim Dae Jung has declared, “The danger of war on the Korean Peninsula has disappeared.”

In short, the Korean Cold War might be ending. But only might. In 1972, the two Koreas signed a reconciliation agreement and halted propaganda attacks. Two decades later, they inked disarmament agreements. These accords all collapsed.

Issues such as the North’s missile program remain unresolved. Moreover, nearly two million soldiers still fill the peninsula.

What the summit has yielded, then, is the first step in a long process of rapprochement. A huge, indeed vital, first step. But a first step nonetheless.

The Clinton administration has responded by lifting economic restrictions. This decision is welcome, though belated — the administration first promised to do so last year.

In fact, the North apparently decided to warm relations with South Korea at least in part out of frustration with Washington’s refusal to fulfill its earlier commitments. Similar discussions with Japan had also led nowhere.

Nevertheless, Washington denies that the summit should have any impact on U.S. troop deployments. Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon explains, “We intend to remain a force for stability in that area as long as we are needed.”

Taking a similar approach is Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “Our forces, when they are stationed somewhere, provide evidence of America’s interest.”

In fact, the summit has not dramatically changed the threat environment or balance of forces on the peninsula. But even before the summit, the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea weren’t needed.

South Korea has upward of 30 times the GDP and twice the population of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Seoul holds a vast technological and industrial edge.

Indeed, the South leads the North on every measure of national power other than current force levels. And the latter is a matter of choice, not an inevitable consequence of geography.

The South has also won the international contest. Although China and Russia have recently begun competing again for influence in Pyongyang, neither desires war on the peninsula. In fact, Moscow has been shipping arms to South Korea to pay off its debts; Beijing has far more extensive economic links with South Korea.

In such a world, there’s no need for America to defend Seoul. Rather, the U.S. presence is a Cold War anachronism, one that could impede genuine detente on the peninsula.

Curiously, there has long been some indication that North Korea is warming to the idea of maintaining U.S. forces as “peacekeepers.” Now Kim Dae Jung reports that the North’s Kim Jong Il told him during their meetings that he agreed that American troops should stay.

If Pyongyang is really committed that position, which is not at all clear, the North might be hoping to redress its growing weakness by relying on the United States. Yet protecting North Korea, with which America fought a war, would be truly bizarre.

Better inter-Korean relations will lead to less South Korean reliance on Washington. That bothers not only American hegemonists who want to dominate the world, but also some Koreans.

Jeon Jaewook, an adviser to the opposition Grand National Party, worries: “This could open up a Pandora’s box by triggering a surge of nationalism that could weaken our alliance with the U.S. and Japan.”

But today’s patron-client relationship is not good for either Seoul or Washington. The two Koreas will not find it easy to achieve their avowed goal of reunification. But they, not the U.S., should determine their future course — whether together or separately.

Washington shouldn’t be expected to approve the result. Nor to finance or guarantee it.

The recent lovefest in Pyongyang is likely to transform the relationship between North and South Korea. It should also transform the relationship between South Korea and the U.S. That is, if the presidential candidates ever recognize that the Cold War is over.

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