International Relations

International Relations

Since the end of the Korean War, the two Koreas have faced each other across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), engaged most of the time in unremitting, withering, unregenerate hostility, punctuated by occasional, brief thaws and increasing exchanges between P'yongyang and Seoul. Huge armies still are poised to fight at a moment's notice. The emergence of the Sino-Soviet conflict in 1969, the United States opening to China in 1971-72, and the end of the Second Indochina War in 1975, however, were some of the watershed changes in world politics that both seemed to empty the Cold War logic of its previous meaning and changed the great power configuration.

The strategic logic of the 1970s had an immediate and beneficial impact on Korea. The Nixon administration withdrew a division of United States soldiers from South Korea. North Korea responded by virtually halting attempts at infiltration (compared with 1968, when more than 100 soldiers died along the DMZ and the United States spy ship Pueblo was seized) and by significantly reducing the defense budget in 1971. In what seemed to be a miraculous development, the Koreas held talks at a high level. These talks between the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and Kim Yng-ju, Kim Il Sung's younger brother, in early 1972, culminated in a July 4, 1972, announcement that both sides would seek reunification peacefully, independently of outside forces, and with common efforts toward creating a "great national unity" that would transcend the many differences between the two systems. Within a year, however, this initiative had effectively failed.

United States policy again shifted, if less dramatically, when the administration of Jimmy Carter announced plans for a gradual but complete withdrawal of United States ground forces from South Korea (air and naval units would remain deployed in or near Korea). At that time, a prolonged period of North Korean courting of the United States began. In 1978, however, the first of the large-scale military exercises called Team Spirit, involving more than 200,000 United States and South Korean troops, was held. And, in 1979, the Carter administration dropped its program of troop withdrawal in reaction to North Korea's rapid and extensive upgrading of its army and the discovery of North Korean-built tunnels under the DMZ; the administration committed itself to a modest but significant build-up of force and equipment levels in South Korea.

In the late 1970s, P'yongyang's policy towards Moscow and Beijing was somewhat of a balancing act. Nonetheless, North Korea began using a term of opprobrium for Soviet imperialism, dominationism (chibaejui), a term akin to the Chinese term, hegemonism. By and large, P'yongyang adhered to the Chinese foreign policy line during the Carter years, while taking care not to antagonize the Soviet Union needlessly. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, North Korea forcefully and publicly condemned the invasion while maintaining a studied silence when China responded by invading Vietnam.

By the early 1980s, changing United States-China relations also had repercussions in the two Koreas. China said publicly that it wished to play a role in reducing tension on the Korean Peninsula. In January 1984, for the first time, a major North Korean initiative called for three-way talks between the United States, South Korea, and North Korea. Through most of the 1980s, China sought to sponsor talks between Washington and P'yongyang-- talks that occasionally took place in Beijing at the ministercounselor level--and encouraged Kim Il Sung to take the path of diplomacy.

The reemergence of detente between the United States and the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s has provided a major opportunity to resolve the Korean confrontation. Seoul, more than P'yongyang, has been effective in exploiting these new opportunities. As Seoul's prestige has grown, it has clearly put P'yongyang on the defensive, perhaps more than at any time since the Korean War. The sharp changes in world politics in the late 1980s placed the fate of the Kim regime in the balance. If North Korea survives amid the failure of most other communist systems, it will be because of the historical, nationalistic, and indigenous roots that its leaders have sought to foster since the 1940s. Drawing on a tradition of resistance to foreign pressure going back to the states of Kogury and Parhae, the North Koreans demonstrated their tenacity and their resilience during the time of the Korean War. They will probably find the 1990s equally challenging.

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