SEOUL — Now that U.S. President Bill Clinton has decided not to go to Pyongyang before his term expires, Colin Powell, U.S. secretary of state-designate in the new Bush administration, inherits the Korean problem. With it comes a golden opportunity to do something that has eluded statesmen for 50 years: to put in place a workable multilateral security framework for the Korean Peninsula, which has for too long been a loose cannon in Northeast Asia.

To resolve the uncertainty, peninsular and regional security must be meshed into a coherent whole so that neither Seoul nor Pyongyang, nor any neighbors, feel threatened. Powell, steeped in the formulation of national security policy for much of his career, has a considerable advantage in beginning the task of forging a new post-Cold War security framework for the Peninsula.

No one, including the North Korea leadership, can doubt Powell’s credentials or credibility in crisis management. And a different tone in Washington’s responses to rhetoric rather than action isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Given the Iraqi precedent, there is no possibility that the North could mistake U.S. interests and policy objectives regarding the Korean Peninsula, specifically in the area of missile technology.

But herein also lies the danger. A reliance on proliferation as the top policy objective and an overemphasis on a national missile-defense system will make the other players — North Korea, China and Russia — more inflexible, contributing to peninsular and regional instability. As important as such issues are in a global context, they are side issues as far as constructing a durable security framework for the Peninsula is concerned.

For starters, Powell can get the four-party talks restarted, moving aggressively to persuade Pyongyang to pursue confidence-building in earnest with the South, and in the longer term, to accept Seoul rather than Washington as its primary interlocutor in ending the Cold War structure on the Peninsula.

Among the key issues are the specifics of a peace regime, including the terms of participation for the two Koreas and external powers, and their respective roles, responsibilities and obligations. It will require creative statesmanship and diplomatic skills of a high order to design a peace regime appropriate to the circumstances of a post-Cold War world.

A successful outcome could be applied to other trouble spots where both internal political forces and external powers have combined to produce interminable conflict, such as in Angola and Congo, thus giving the Korea problem greater prominence on the new Bush foreign-policy agenda.

As for U.S. relations with the South, Kim Dae Jung’s Nobel Prize gives him the moral high ground in pursuing detente with the North. Unification and security are two sides of the same coin for which Powell — the warrior turned statesman — is Kim’s perfect partner.

However, rather than playing bad cop to Kim’s good cop, the trick is to draw on both men’s vision and experience and make it a threesome — including North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as an interlocutor. The two Koreas are doing reasonably well only six months after their historic summit; 50 years of hostility cannot be ended overnight. The two leaders should be left to move forward at a pace that is comfortable for them. They need time to digest what has occurred and to craft and implement measures and mechanisms to fill in the blanks in the joint declaration.

Indeed, they have already begun to do so, having negotiated an economic cooperation framework, moved to secure a permanent location for family reunions and set to work relinking the severed railroad across the demilitarized zone. Despite the nay sayers, all of these are significant achievements in the context of five decades of frozen relations. Thus, anything that comes within a mile of undercutting Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” is out of bounds.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.