The Korean peninsula remains a potentially dangerous military hot-spot, but guarded optimism about North-South relations is warranted, four experts told an audience of 300 at the ARCO Forum last night.
Ashton Carter, the former assistant U.S. secretary of defense and a current professor at the Kennedy School of Government who moderated the "Korea: Prospects for Peace on the Peninsula" panel, opened with a reminder.
"There was no peace treaty ending the Korean War," he said.
"Nothing has changed very much in terms of confrontation," agreed Lee Hong-Koo, ambassador to the United States from South Korea. "People [are] talking about the post-Cold War era--[but] not on the Korean peninsula."
Still, the prospects for renewed dialogue "don't look that dim," said Stephen W. Bosworth, the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea.
Bosworth commended the "Sunshine Policy" of current South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.
That combination of economic engagement with North Korea and "zero tolerance of military provocation" from the communist country "makes a lot of sense," he said.
And an upcoming summit between the leaders of the North and South, originally called for in a 1994 treaty shouldn't hurt either, Hong-Koo said.
"It is our hope that this momentous meeting...will mark the beginning of the end of the confrontation between North and South," Hong-Koo said.
The one member of the panel with military credentials expressed a similar optimism.
North Korea "still [remains] dangerous," said General John Tilelli Jr., who commands U.S. forces on the peninsula. But the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea "has yielded dividends...that progressively are moving in the right direction," he added.
Tilelli attributed much of this progress to the professionalism and dedication of the men and women serving in South Korea.
"It's one of those unique places that you grow to love very quickly," he said, commenting on his personal experience there.
Two of the panelists suggested that unification is ultimately likely.
Hong-Koo and Bosworth said that any moves toward unification must proceed in baby steps.
Yet unification cannot be a question of the South engulfing the North, they said.
And though the "unification cost is great," Hong-Koo acknowledged in the question and answer session, the "division cost is even greater."
"The only natural Korea is a unified Korea," Bosworth said.
Carter wrapped up the panel, discussing the upcoming parliamentary elections in South Korea and recent developments bearing on relations between North and South Korea.
This "last hangover of the Cold War," Carter said, remains "one of the most fascinating, but also most dangerous parts of the world."