After two years of talking about having talks, it is time the United States, South Korea, North Korea, and China started thinking concretely about how to end the half-century-old state of hostilities in the Korean Peninsula. Alternatively, the two Koreas could start directly negotiating with each other.
The only ray of hope to come out of the latest round of four-party discussions in Geneva earlier this month was an indication that North Korea might be prepared to consider such bilateral talks with South Korea’s new reformist president, Kim Dae-jung.
Either way, it first bears emphasizing what is not negotiable: U.S. forces should stay on the peninsula as long as South Korea wants them there. North Korea would do well to drop its tired demand that American troops depart as a precondition to a peace accord.
That said, Seoul and Washington should start developing the basic outlines of a major arms control and economic reform plan for Pyongyang’s consideration. Its cornerstone would be a conventional arms control proposal requiring both sides to verifiably reduce their forces. Given the size of its arsenal, North Korea would have to make the larger cuts. It would also have to sign, ratify, and implement the Chemical Weapons Convention.
For their part, Washington and Seoul could show flexibility by permitting North Korea to keep a modest numerical advantage of some 10 to 20 percent in armored systems (given the obsolescence of the Stalinist state’s weaponry).
The United States, and perhaps Japan, could offer expanded humanitarian and economic assistance to North Korea. Finally, they also could pledge to normalize relations with Pyongyang—provided Pyongyang would recognize Seoul.
Critics will say that such a sweeping proposal is too much, too fast. But there are advantages to big ideas, as then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev proved in the 1980s. They have a way of focusing the mind that incrementalist ventures may not.
The North Korean government may do better at evaluating fundamental appeals to its core national interests—as it did in reaching the landmark 1994 nuclear reactor deal—than at slogging through the arcana of confidence-building measures and limited arms control pacts.
Other critics might advocate a harder line, objecting to further aid to North Korea and insisting that any arms accord mandate equal weapons ceilings on the two sides of the demilitarized zone. But the allies are in a very strong position vis-a-vis North Korea and can be somewhat flexible to increase the odds of getting a deal. South Korea has twice the population, 20 times the gross domestic product and three times the defense budget of North Korea.
The United States bases more airpower capability in northeast Asia than is found in North Korea’s entire military, and could quadruple it within a couple weeks. Its 2nd infantry division also remains in South Korea. North Korea has 50 percent more tanks on the peninsula than the allies, and 100 percent more artillery. But North Korean equipment is even worse than Iraq’s was in 1991.
For example, the best North Korean tank is a Soviet T-62 design—basically 1960s vintage—while Iraq had 1,000 T-72s going into Desert Storm. By contrast, much South Korean weaponry is based on modern U.S. designs like the M1 tank and is in good condition. In any attempt to take Seoul, North Korean forces would have to traverse the most militarized swath of land on Earth against allied forces that are dug in and fortified.
Unlike the German Army attacking France in 1940, there would be no way for them to go around this particular Maginot Line. Defenses extend across the whole peninsula, and the allies’ advanced reconnaissance systems would detect any large-scale North Korean movements in time to counterconcentrate against them.
What specific arms control deal would make sense? Consider tanks, of which North Korea now has about 3,000; South Korea owns 2,100, including 800 Type 88 models similar in many ways to the U.S. M1; and the United States stations about 150 tanks on the peninsula.
If South Korea cut up 500 tanks and North Korea eliminated 1,000, Pyongyang would retain a numerical edge over the allies but of more modest magnitude. North Korea would have to make even greater relative cuts in the area of artillery, where it enjoys more than a 2-to-1 advantage over the allies at present. But the two sides could make roughly equal reductions in armored personnel carriers, since their force levels are comparable.
To make this deal more attractive to North Korea, the United States should offer it financial inducements and ask Tokyo to contribute as well. One purpose of the aid package would be to ensure that, despite Seoul’s recent economic crisis, sufficient resources remain available to construct the two light-water reactors promised North Korea as part of the 1994 nuclear deal.
Further assistance of several hundred million dollars a year would also be warranted for humanitarian needs and to foster economic liberalization.
Already, a number of enterprise zones have been designated in North Korea. By funding infrastructure improvements in those zones, outside aid could improve the odds that they would attract investment and begin to get the North Korean economy on the path to recovery.
The net effect of all these initiatives would be to reduce the hypermilitarization of North Korea. In addition to improving military stability on the peninsula, it could result in a major step toward true reform and reconciliation. There is, of course, no assurance that this plan would work. But there is every reason to test the waters.