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U.S. Optimistic, but Cautious About Changes in Korea

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

SEOUL, Sept. 20, 2000 – The historic meeting in June between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Chong-il carries much promise for the people of both Koreas.

U.S. officials said the ongoing dialogue will inevitably mean changes for the 37,000 U.S. service members stationed in South Korea. But not yet.

The meeting in June and subsequent developments have put into motion what one senior U.S. official called a “fundamental transformation” on the Korean Peninsula. But those changes are far from assured and far from irreversible, the official said, and the ongoing process is fragile.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen is meeting with South Korean officials against the backdrop of these changes.

Officials traveling with the secretary said many things converged for the north and south to engage. The most important, perhaps, is North Korea's economic desperation. The North’s economy is “broken,” U.S. officials said. The North sees its dialogue as necessary to survival, because South Korea is the one country with both the resources and the will to help.

President Kim Dae-jung has encouraged the dialogue by being consistent. Since taking office two years ago, he has maintained three bedrock principles for talks with the North. First, South Korea will tolerate absolutely no military provocation. This translates to a strong defense and a continued strong alliance with the United States.

Second, he has separated politics from business. The new economic connections between the two Koreas give the North an interest in stability on the peninsula.

Finally, Kim states that rapid reunification with the North was not a goal. This gives North Korea some breathing room.

Many in the world are surprised at the rapid pace of the talks, and some critics say the South is rushing the process. U.S. officials said Kim Chong-il is setting the pace and no one knows for sure why he is moving so fast. The officials surmise that once he decided to approach the South he had no vested interest in moving slowly.

Since the meeting, families separated by the Korean War of 1950-1953 have been able to meet under supervised circumstances. The two Koreas also agreed to re-establish a railroad across their demilitarized zone. The most public expression to date of the new atmosphere was the two Koreas marching together during the opening ceremonies at the Sydney Olympics.

Polls show that the vast majority of South Koreans approve of the approach. After the meeting, there was a spike in anti-American demonstrations. Many in the country felt that with military tensions dropping that the Americans were no longer needed.

President Kim Dae-jung and his ministers went to their people and defended the U.S.-ROK security alliance, saying it's still needed. In fact, Kim said the North Korean leader told him that North Korea understood the need for the United States to stay and agreed with it.

U.S. officials said it is too early to say what U.S. forces and their composition would be if the North-South rapprochement continues. They said more than 800,000 North Korean soldiers are still based on the demilitarized zone, and their artillery could still hit Seoul. The current level of U.S. forces in Korea will remain the same, they added.

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