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Aim for lasting peace in Korea

They're at it again. In the waters of the Yellow Sea, off the politically stormy western coast of the Korean peninsula, North and South Korean gunboats have been pointing fingers and gun turrets -- and, last week, blasting away at each other. Can't these Koreans get along? Maybe not. Perhaps what both need is one more notch of military escalation so they can see the horror ahead of them.

Sure, the ruffians up North are far, far more reprehensible than those crony capitalists in the South. But the Republic of Korea, a democracy only since 1988, has its share of mean-spirited enemies of peace. Don't believe that these dust-ups are all one side's fault. It takes two to tangle. Don't underestimate the ability of South Korean military and intelligence circles to rain on President Kim Dae-Jung's bold "sunshine policy" toward North Korea.No one would disagree that North Korea, far more than the South, looks for trouble.

But let's not forget about South Korea's contribution to instability. Its domestic politics can be roiling and nasty.

It's fortunate that so many South Koreans -- and, by and large, the South Korean media -- continue to support Kim's policy of engagement with the North. A wise and determined leader, Kim has put nothing less than his entire presidency on the line by pushing for peace. But he is playing a tricky game against opponents who don't play fair: With each North-South land or sea military exchange, his public grows edgier. Time is not on the 73-year-old Kim's side. If nothing comes out of all the diplomatic efforts -- including Tuesday's halfhearted meeting in Beijing and the on-again, off-again Geneva negotiations -- then Kim could well turn into the Korean version of Jimmy Carter at his bumbling presidential worst. If that happens, three governments will be largely to blame, none of them Korean. They are Washington, Tokyo and Beijing.

First is Washington, because the United States has the most power and a great propensity to let major international issues degenerate into partisan rows. Instead of playing politics so that Washington winds up in a foot-dragging mode, Congress should propose a way to end the economic embargo of North Korea that has existed since the end of the Korean fighting in 1953.

Who are the nasty Northerners? Officials like Vice Marshal Cho Myong Nok, who, after his country's shocking launch of a two-stage test missile over Japan last August, bragged openly that the firing "struck fear into the hearts of those imperialists that are trying to crush us." That certainly rattled Tokyo's cage. But Japan's government, which is moving to address its festering economic problems, now must rally Japanese public opinion behind Kim's aggressive diplomacy.

The stakes are also huge for China. It would lose big time if North Korea were to lunge at the South, for that mission would certainly prove an impossible one: The North would be militarily devastated, on top of its continuing economic devastation. Conversely, China could realize a huge diplomatic gain if it helped produce a demilitarized peninsula, with North and South moving toward their own brand of one-country, two-systems relationship. With that, everyone wins.

How improbable is such an outcome? That depends on how all the players handle their cards, especially Washington. One prerequisite for overall peace is a promise from the United States that someday its troops will leave South Korea, once there is a neutral, denuclearized Korea that is a threat to no one

In effect, then, America must follow a policy so visionary that its eventual military withdrawal not only is inevitable but can be clearly foreseen.

Once the North Korean threat vanishes, what's the need for a continued U.S. military presence down South? We have other venues for our bases, such as in Japan and to a lesser (but growing) extent in Singapore. Our continental U.S. bases can project forces rapidly throughout the region. A neutral Korea would be no place for a major U.S. presence.

Think clearly, America, unless you want U.S. troops to be in Korea through a third generation.

Tom Plate teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles