31 January 2005

From Main Enemy to... substantial military threat that has posed a direct threat?

South Korea will publish it latest Defense White Paper February 4, the first since 2001. In the paper, North Korea will no longer be listed as the “Main Enemy” of South Korea, but instead will be called a "substantial military threat that has posed a direct threat" to South Korea.

The “main enemy” phrase has been a contentious issue that has basically preceded the publication of the White Paper for the past few years.

The new descriptor, which doesn’t really roll off the tongue like “main enemy” did, is, of course, stirring dissent among the various (OK, two) political parties. For Pyongyang, this is another notch off its international bad boy image, after so recently being downgraded from a charter member of the Axis of Evil to one of several “outposts of tyranny.”

But more importantly, the altered phrase represents another subtle step in the uni-direction of the two Koreas – the semi-integration and the growing parallel between the national interests of each side as the realities of the post-post Cold War world set in.

During the Cold War, the two Koreas had external sponsors, and the fundamental national interest of each Korea was more similar to its mentor/sponsor than to the peninsula as a whole.

The collapse of the Cold war system not only left the North out hanging, but the south as well began to look toward guarding its own interests and realizing that not all of those interests were the same as those of the United States.

Now, for example, take the article in the Asahi Shimbun, which warns that products made in Kaesong, the South/North joint production area just north of the DMZ, could be a stumbling block to a South Korea-Japan Free trade Agreement. Tokyo is looking to toss sanctions on North Korea, but goods produced in Kaesong will be stamped with the label “Made in North Korea.”

Now, Seoul could get out of this by simply changing the labels – products from Myanmar frequently bear the label “Made in Thailand” to bypass international sanctions. But Seoul is unlikely to go along with that, and neither is Pyongyang. Both have an interest in making Kaesong work, in whatever manner. And both are looking at Japan and once again seeing a rising neighbor that appears to have its sights set on regional political, economic and – if you read the DPRK papers – military domination. (Even in Seoul there is a repressed fear of a resurgent militaristic Japan rising at a time when the United States is withdrawing from South Korea.)

And so, tiny steps toward rapprochement between the two Koreas are being driven by more than political posturing, but by the growing realization in both capitals that the fundamental strategic interests are merging. How far and how fast this process can move is still dependent upon the personal interests of the elites in both Koreas, and that will certainly retard the process. But, unless outside nations once again take on the role of sponsors of the divided Koreas, the peninsula will once again see itself fundamentally as a single entity, pressed and threatened by its neighbors.

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