Early Albright focus is tension in Korea

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to South Korea over the weekend amid heightened tensions between Seoul and its communist neighbor to the north. The excursion was planned for some time, but the defection of a top-ranking North Korean official to the South Korean embassy in Beijing last week threatened to undermine Albright’s plan to convince Korean leaders to participate in peace talks with the United States and China in New York next month. Fortunately, North Korea managed to defuse the growing hostility before Albright’s arrival. Late last week, Pyongyang dropped the initial contention that the North Korean official had not defected but was kidnapped by South Korean agents. Consequently, Albright was able to secure commitments to attend the March conference from both North and South Korea. An atmosphere of renewed collaboration also permitted Albright to lay out a series of prudent proposals aimed at building a foundation for lasting peace in the region. The heated debate that erupted in response to the defection incident underscores the urgency of coordinating U.S. policies with South Korean designs to avert the collapse of the North’s fragile economy. Signs of increasing instability in North Korea, including severe food shortages and a depleted economic infrastructure, demand immediate attention. Despite its deepening economic troubles, Pyongyang continues to develop new missiles and, many believe, maintains a covert nuclear program. Washington fears that a sudden breakdown of the North Korean economy could be accompanied by an attack on the South, endangering the 37,000 American troops based in Seoul. Albright’s plans for dealing with North Korea sensibly require engaging Pyongyang both diplomatically and economically. Enticing Pyongyang to formally end the Korean war by replacing the 1953 armistice agreement with a peace treaty is a top priority. A full-fledged treaty will be a crucial factor in determining whether cooperative efforts with the United States, Seoul, and China can bring about enduring peace on the Korean peninsula. On the economic front, the United States will provide Pyongyang with $10 million in food aid; up from $6 million last year. South Korea agreed last week to give an additional $6 million, an increase from the $3.2 million it offered last year. In addition Washington intends to speed up plans to assist in building a light-water nuclear reactor in North Korea in return for an effective freezing of Pyongyang’s unsupervised nuclear program. Furthermore, Washington’s insistence that the North disclose its true nuclear history is meant to ease negotiations between Congress and Pyongyang over a nuclear cooperation agreement. Long-standing friction between Seoul and Pyongyang are certain to confound ongoing efforts to move beyond their fundamental political and economic differences. But Albright’s demands for cooperative negotiations have generated a willingness from both the South and North to work with other nations toward building a stronger foundation for peace. The sincerity of their commitments still rests on shaky grounds. Still, Albright’s efforts have, for the time being, energized cooperative interests in long-term stability.