Unified Korea would destabilise US role in Asia

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The Independent Online

Every day at Panmunjom, the "truce village" on the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, an international cast acts out one of the world's strangest and longest-running dramas of the absurd.

Every day at Panmunjom, the "truce village" on the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, an international cast acts out one of the world's strangest and longest-running dramas of the absurd.

Samuel Beckett or Eugene Ionesco could not have bettered the bizarre ritual ballet, which began at the end of the Korean War and has continued every day for the past 47 years. Here, across a gravel plaza divided by a narrow concrete line, soldiers of the North and South face off in the world's most extended staring contest.

On the northern side, the world's biggest flag (28 metres long, 270kg) hangs heavily from the world's tallest flagpole (146 metres high) and the hills and the paddy fields bear Communist slogans spelt out in giant Korean letters.

To the south, young soldiers lead coach loads of sightseers, lecturing them on the evils of the northern menace. Even when the tourists are Korean, the tour guides are American for, despite the presence of the South Korean troops and the UN flag under which they notionally serve, this is an American-dominated operation, lead by American commanders in camps named after dead American officers.

In the past few days, it is true, the propaganda broadcasts, which used to blare out all night from giant loudspeaker systems on both sides, have been switched off. But by and large Panmunjom continues as it always has, blithely unaware of the huge and enveloping changes that have begun to take place around it. Last week, while the Americans and North Koreans were snarling dutifully at one another across the border, the political dynamics of the peninsula were undergoing what looks, for the time being at least, to have been an irreversible change.

Kim Dae Jung, the President of the South, travelled to the northern capital, Pyongyang, for a meeting with the leader of the North, Kim Jong Il. Over three euphoric days, the two men surpassed everyone's expectations - chatting, laughing, and embracing, and producing a communiqué that promises to reunite the two Koreas after 50 years of fratricidal rivalry.

Such a union is a long way off but the mere fact that the two leaders have met and found common ground is remarkable enough and throws into doubt the rationale behind the huge US presence in East Asia.

Including the 37,000 in Korea, some 100,000 American servicemen are based in the region. Since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet threat, the question has been repeatedly asked: Why?

Only one country has the military capacity and motivation to offer a serious military challenge to American interests in Asia - China. But the demands of smooth-running diplomacy make it impossible to say such a thing publicly. It is much easier to point to "rogue states" such as North Korea.

A rapprochement between Seoul and Pyongyang would also undermine another Pentagon project, the proposed Theatre Missile Defence system, aversion of Star Wars. North Korea's testing of an intercont-inental ballistic missile in 1998 was what kick-started the system's development.

After the Pyongyang summit, Madeleine Albright added Seoul to the itinerary of a trip to China this week. In March, General Thomas A Schwartz, gave testimony in Congress on the vast military machine still at the disposal of the North Koreans - 700,000 men stationed within 60 miles of the border, with 8,000 artillery pieces, 2,000 tanks and more in the rear.

There is no doubt that if North Korea wished to launch a surprise attack it could inflict unspeakable damage on Seoul and the South Korean economy, although inevitable defeat and national disintegration would make that a suicidal choice.

These days few believe that such a scenario is remotely likely and Panmunjom looks more and more like an anachronism, a Cold War theme park stuck in the last century.