Next Steps for North Korea Policy

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Next Steps for North Korea Policy

As expected, it appears that United States policy toward North Korea will change considerably under the Bush administration. In his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell expressed concern about North Korea’s possession of large numbers of conventional weapons and its development of missiles and said that the new administration would thoroughly review U.S. policies toward Pyongyang. He pledged to continue to follow the framework of negotiations set in motion by the Clinton administration but stated as a prerequisite that any agreement would have to involve reciprocal measures that address America’s security concerns. His assertion that the new administration would not rush into an agreement with North Korea throws cold water on the hopes of quickly improved relations between Washington and Pyongyang that were generated by Madeleine Albright’s visit there. Mr. Powell’s use of the term “North Korean dictator” when speaking of Kim Jong-il is a noteworthy reflection of the new administration’s attitude toward Pyongyang.

Just because the United States is taking a harder stance toward North Korea, this does not mean that our government should give up its basic commitment to rapprochement. However, such “packaged events” as family reunions and the railroad link will hardly convince the United States that the changes it is looking for in North Korea are actually taking place.

Washington clearly has doubts about the fact that President Kim Dae-jung did not press the issue of American concerns about weapons of mass destruction during his summit talks with Kim Jong-il. Washington will not settle for vagaries and circumlocutions. We shall have to show Washington that real progress is being made with the North, leading to specific, workable mechanisms for maintaining peace on the peninsula. An early visit to Seoul by Kim Jong-il and the conclusion of a peace agreement could provide evidence of progress we need.

Of course, Seoul could employ a strategy taking advantage of the attention on the Korean Peninsula by the four major powers, but Korea’s existence as part of the U.S.-Japanese diplomatic security axis and under the powerful economic influence of the U.S. market will not allow any breakthroughs by diplomatic finagling. The best solution is to quickly formulate an approach acceptable to both Seoul and Washington before the new U.S. administration’s stance on North Korea becomes intractably fixed.

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