George W. Bush vs North Korea

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George W. Bush vs North Korea

Although the new U.S. administration, led by George W. Bush, is likely to take a hard-line stance in dealing with North Korea, the South Korean government seems relaxed in its response to possible policy changes. Foreign Affairs-Trade Minister Lee Joung-binn told a television panel discussion several days ago that policies on North Korea would not deviate much from the current three-way Korea-U.S.-Japan coordination mechanism. Yang Sung-chul, who is the Korean ambassador to Washington and now is in Seoul to attend an annual conference of Korea''s overseas mission chiefs, also emphasized that the United States would maintain its current engagement policy toward Pyongyang. Citing reported comments made by Bush administration national security advisers to the effect that the term "sunshine policy" should not be used as a description of the engagement policy, Ambassador Yang says that we should not rush to judgment on the basis of remarks made by one person or another.

However, we cannot simply shrug off the comments made by Mr. Bush''s national security advisory team. Looking at the signals sent so far by the U.S. team, we wonder whether the U.S. administration will have the same view of North Korea policy as South Korea does.

The intentions of the new administration are unclear. It is almost certain that it is interested in developing a National Missile Defense program and in setting up diplomatic alliances with Europe while readjusting relatons with China and Russia. The Korean Peninsula issue will be worked out in line with such new policy guidelines. Japan and Taiwan have welcomed the development of the NMD system and the Theater Missile Defense program proposed by the U.S. government.

This will put South Korea in a very awkward situation since it has to keep close diplomatic ties with both China and Russia as part of the engagement policy with North Korea. Furthermore, Mr. Bush''s national security advisory team is carrying out bottom-up review of the Clinton administration''s landmark agreement with North Korea in Geneva and the demands for a reduction in the number of conventional weapons kept by North Korea. Even though the U.S. and Japan think highly of South Korea''s efforts to improve relations with the North, they are reported to be dissatisfied with what they see as Seoul''s excessive concessions to Pyongyang.

It is rather pathetic that the South Korean government seems to be feeling relieved at the remarks to the effect that the U.S. national security advisers recognize existing engagement policy toward North Korea. It is difficult enough already to push ahead with the engagement policy in a consistent fashion. And questions are now raised about whether the South Korean foreign affairs team will maintain close ties with Mr. Bush''s national security advisers and be able to earn their confidence.

A meeting at the level of foreign affairs ministers between South Korea and the United States is scheduled for the beginning of February and a meeting between Kim Dae-jung and Mr. Bush is likely to be held soon. Without appropriate preparation and coordination before the meetings, South Korea could find itself in trouble as a result of the hard-line policies the Bush administration is expected to favor. This will make it difficult for the next government to know what to do. The current government therefore has to mobilize all possible channels, including the private sector, in order to broaden the relationship between South Korea and the United States. It also needs to reorganize both personnel and systems so as to implement North Korea policy more effectively.

by Kim Young-bae

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