South Korea Can Play the Role of Transformer

Posted January 3, 2007

Categories: Articles, Korea

Northeast Asia is a high voltage environment. In other words, an enormous gap in power separates the strongest and the weakest countries currently negotiating in the six-party process.

Over the last two decades, this gap in power has sustained the Cold War in the region. It has both justified the maintenance of the huge U.S. military presence and pushed North Korea to develop nuclear weapons to equalize the situation.

Neither the U.S. military nor North Korea’s putative nuclear weapons can effectively resolve this high-voltage problem.

To bridge the huge gap in power, Northeast Asia needs the equivalent of a transformer. A transformer makes it possible for electricity to flow between different voltages.

At the moment, lacking such a transformer, Northeast Asia does not function like a region. It has no regional economic or security institutions. The area is crowded with weapons and fear. And the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) has acted an effective circuit breaker.

The only country that either wants or can play the role of transformer is South Korea. As transformer, South Korea has already worked hard to reconnect the Korean Peninsula.

The first inter-Korean summit in 2000 initiated several projects, including the Gaeseong industrial zone and the reestablished north-south train links to begin to bridge the power gap.

Now, with the working groups established in the six-party process, a much more ambitious program of normalized diplomatic relations, a permanent peace treaty and regional security institutions is on the table.

The second summit between Korean leaders can provide a critical link between peninsular and regional cooperation. True, the upcoming summit has generated much controversy over its timing, electoral significance, and potential impact on the nuclear negotiations of the six-party talks.

These arguments are not unimportant. However, the summit should be evaluated not simply in terms of its short-term impact. Rather, it must be placed in the context of the much larger role that South Korea can and must play in transforming the region: negotiating the large power differential between the United States and North Korea.

Helping North Korea is, on the face of it, a bad investment. It is a small market of only 22 million people. Businesses are reluctant to invest in a country with an unpredictable political environment.

Then there are the large-scale human rights abuses. Only South Korea, for reasons of history and nationalism, is willing to hold its nose, to go beyond rhetoric and actually bring its northern cousins into the world community.

Nor is it only the progressive camp that believes that investments into such joint projects as Gaeseong are a down payment on the ultimate project of reunification.

The opposition party candidates also support an economic strategy to begin to equalize the substantial north-south economic gap. The transformation project in Korea, as in the days of Ostpolitik in divided Germany, is finally becoming a non-partisan issue.

The upcoming summit should take inter-Korean cooperation to the next step. Expanding on joint economic projects for manufacturing and tourism are a critical component.

Even if they are constrained by progress in the denuclearization process, the two Korean leaders can still reach agreement on the goals, though not the particulars, of the more visionary proposals, such as a regional peace regime and turning the Northern Limit Line into a marine peace park.

Analysts should therefore not view the summit as pitting narrow South Korean interests, such as political gain or specific economic projects, against the larger goals of the six-party talks.

Rather, inter-Korean cooperation is integral to the larger aims of the negotiations. Without South Korean political and economic investment, there will be no regional peace and security.

Without South Korea taking the lead in improving bilateral relations, the six-party talks will never rise above the necessary but insufficient focus on eliminating North Korea’s nuclear program.

The stakes are enormous and transcend mere peninsular politics. The countries negotiating the six-party talks collectively control the vast majority of the world’s armaments and produce the lion’s share of global economic output.

At one level, these countries are negotiating a narrow project of eliminating North Korea’s nuclear program. At another level, however, they are determining the future trajectory of the globe. Along one path lies militarization and thwarted economic potential.

Along the other path lies Northeast Asia as a cornerstone of the international economy and a driver of global disarmament.

Negotiating the power gap in a high-voltage region of the world is risky business. The other countries in the six-party process, with geopolitical priorities other than North Korea, are not willing to take the risks.

They are spending some diplomatic and financial capital, but no more. Only South Korea can, through reconnecting the Korean Peninsula, begin the process of integrating the region. Only South Korea can play the role of transformer.

Korea Times, September 22, 2007

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