Will U.S. Policy on North Korea Slip?

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Will U.S. Policy on North Korea Slip?

On the day before President George W. Bush’s inauguration, I paid a call on a Republican expert on Korean affairs in Washington. He said that during the previous two days he had been visited by six Korean politicians. Another Korea expert had had both lunch and dinner with members of the Korean National Assembly the day before. Almost all Korea experts in Washington and New York were busy meeting visitors from Seoul.

The trip to Washington by more than 20 Korean legislators as the reins of the U.S. government were passed to the new Bush administration was a reflection of the Korean administration and ruling camp’s concerns that under Mr. Bush, U.S. policy toward North Korea might change in some fundamental way and of the Grand National Party’s belief that it was in a better position to connect with a Republican government. However, most of Washington’s Korea experts do not believe that the Bushites will depart greatly from the Clinton-era policy of rapprochement, for two reasons.

One is that the Bush administration will also base its approach to Pyongyang on the two-year-old Perry Report. The other is that highlevel administration officials who will be directly involved in developing North Korea policy are almost all old hands with more than 20 years’ experience dealing with Korean issues and would not be overly swayed by changes in public opinion or the political atmosphere. Don Oberdorfer is well-versed in Korean issues and is close to many Korea experts both in and out of the American government. His very interesting, specific views of what the future may hold center on the people in the new administration. During the campaign, Mr. Bush had a team of six foreign-policy advisers, led by Condoleezza Rice, which held discussions almost daily on the direction a Bush administration’s policies would take.

Four of the six are Bush appointees, some of them already confirmed: Ms. Rice, White House national security adviser; Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state; Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense; and Steve Hadley, assistant national security adviser. All of them except Ms. Rice are top experts on Korea. In addition, another Korea expert, James Kelly, is likely to be appointed assistant secretary of state in charge of AsiaPacific affairs, and the EastAsia expert Torkel Patterson is a probable candidate for the position of Asia adviser on the White House National Security Council. It has been rare for U.S. administrations to include so many high-level appointments with expertise on Korea, and the Bush government far outstrips the Clinton administration in this regard.

Of course, just because we do not foresee any great change in the United States’ North Korea policy, that does not mean that the Bushites will follow in the footsteps of Mr. Clinton, who was on the verge of making a state visit to Pyongyang. The goals of the Bush administration in regard to the Korean Peninsula are the same as they were under Mr. Clinton. But the strategies that determine how those goals are actually approached will be different in the following ways. First, the Bush administration will not make unilateral concessions just to appease Kim Jong-il. The Republicans feel that the U.S. foolishly succumbed to North Korean bluffing during the 1994 Geneva talks, and in any negotiations on improving relations with Washington, they will surely demand some workable mechanism of inspections to ensure that Pyongyang is sticking to its promises on nuclear weapons, missile development and terrorism.

Second, the Republicans regard former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit to Pyongyang and President Clinton’s even having considered such a visit himself as serious errors and are likely to keep any dealings with the North Koreans at lower levels of the administration for the time being. They believe that Kim Jongil strongly desires a visit by an American president so that he can use it to enhance his position domestically. President Kim Dae-jung’s pushing for early summit talks with President Bush is regarded with suspicion by the Republicans. Some of them think the Kim administration, which was hoping for a victory by Al Gore, is in a rush out of fear, others say that Mr. Kim is hoping for a joint statement with Mr. Bush in order to bring about a change in the political situation in Seoul. Naturally, Washington sneers at the rumors of a Bush-Kim summit meeting in March.

The fact that power in Washington has changed hands does not mean that there will now be discord between Korea and the United States on North Korea policy. The brilliant team of Korea experts the Bush administration has assembled gives us good reason to expect a moderate, reasonable approach to Pyongyang. It is advisable that the South, rather than barraging Washington with an overabundance of opinions and talk, would be better off conducting firm and resolute traditional diplomacy.
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