NEWS COVERAGE of President Reagan's recent trip to South Korea showed the Chief Executive standing resolutely in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), gazing at the bleak North Korean horizon. Two major topics must have been discussed with South Korean officials during the trip--the Korean Air Lines 007 massacre and the recent murder, almost certainly by North Korean agents, of several high-ranking South Korean ministers and aides in Burms. And of course the overall themes must have been defense and trade. Why these topics have become increasingly important to America, and why the Korean dilemma cannot be solved with easy theories of "containment," are questions that have to be considered with an eye to history.
I he most glaring (and stagnant) examples of East/West confrontation in the world today can be found within the borders of two truly divided countries. Korea and Germany. The internal boundary of Germany doesn't look much different from the way it did in 1945. Korea's political divide wandered from one end of the country to the other during the Korean war, but now it rests roughly in the middle of the peninsula, more or less where it started after World WarII. Originally these two shattered countries had a third companion. The ongoing challenge for Western policy makers today is to negotiate and use peaceful deferrence to keep South Korea from turning into another Vietnam.
Several factors combine to make Korea--and East Asia generally--at once more complex and more potentially dangerous than Germany. First and foremost, the importance of East Asia to the United States and the world has grown dramatically in the last few years. In 1977 the value of U.S. trade with Western Pacific for the first time exceeded the value of our trade with Western Europe. Korea ranks behind only Japan and Taiwan as a regional U.S. trading partner. Indeed, the GNP growth rates of these nations have been consistently higher than the world average. Between 1976 and 1980 U.S. trade with the entire region rose over 200 percent. Obviously a major disruption in the area would be disastrous, both for the world economy and the American people.
A second reason Korea has been attracting additional attention is the new Asian military balance between the superpowers. Growing Soviet naval and air forces pose new threats throughout the region. Since 1970 the Soviet Pacific Fleet has increased its total tonnage from one million to 1.6 million, while the US Seventh Fleet's tonnage has declined from one million to 600,000. In addition, access to formerly US naval facilities at Cam Ranh Bay and Danang. Vietnam, give the Soviet Union a vastly increased ability to project power along Asia's vital links to Mideast oil. Furthermore. SS-20 missiles and vastly increased land-based air forces allow the Soviets to make their weight known throughout the area.
How does North Korea fit into all of this? Not well at all, contrary to what many Administration officials would have us believe. In fact, trying to fit the Korean question into the superpower equation was always difficult and is now nearly impossible. North Korea has always attempted to remain as autonomous as possible; and although circumstances have often dictated that it follow the policies of China and or the USSR, it has maintainted a relatively large measure of independence, unlike most of Eastern Europe.
HOW CAN THIS be so, when the Communist superpowers created North Korea's government, nurtured it through the war, and support it to this day? The answer throws valuable light on the entire question of East/West division, and shows why it is impossible to view the world as red on one side and red-white-and-blue on the other. The Communits revolutions in Russia and China were achieved by remarkably well organized, tiny minorities. These violent revolutionaries used the legitimate grievances of oppressed peoples to gain power, which they promptly consolidated and turned against the same people to maintain their power. The same thing happened in Cuba and all over Eastern Europe; internal strifes paved the way for revolutions. But they didn't necessarily create a monolith; once established, these minority dictatorships develop peculiarities and national quirks, and often turn away from the grandaddy Soviet Union. Yugoslavia is a good example of this, and China, too. North Korea has added a fascinating variation: apparently strongman Kim's eldest son is the heir apparent to the head spot. This quasimonarchic arrangement is certainly anathema to main-line Marxism.
The two Koreas provide the best world example that it doesn't have to be this way, and that wise diplomacy now can correct the wrongs of four decades. Before 1945, Korea was an undisputed unit. But under the two systems of government progress has been vastly different. Per capita income is roughly 1.5 times larger in the South, and GNP is three times as great. GNP growth rate is twice as large for the South, and the North spends as much as 230 percent of its GNP for the military--vastly more than the South. With only half the population, North Korea maintains a larger army. The costs of this to the North Korean people can only be guessed. Probably they would change it if they could.
And this is the real tragedy of the twentieth century, in miniature. On one side, people with real problems have been duped by ruthless dictators with silver tongues. To maintain themselves in power after the initial takeover, the North Korean Communists have stirred up a hatred of the South and of the United States. This legitimatizes their iron hold on the country and their repressive build-up of force. But on the other side, American "containment" has given the North the perfect excuse for repression--genuine fear. If "containment" can be limited to exactly that and the North Korean people can be convinced of it, them perhaps progress can be made. This progress could include a reduction in force, help for the North Korean economy, maybe even eventual reunification. First, through, the fear level must be reduced and North Korea only hurts itself by engaging in such wanton terror as murder of government officials. The burden lies on North Korea to truly broaden and legitimize its government. But this will be made easier if American stops looking at the world through red-colord glasses.