[OUTLOOK] Successful Opening Round of Diplomacy

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[OUTLOOK] Successful Opening Round of Diplomacy

The joint statement by President Kim Dae-jung and the U.S. president, George W. Bush, after their summit helped to dispel some of the reservations and anxieties that Koreans have nursed since the inauguration of the Bush administration.

As announced in the joint press statement, the two heads of state reached an agreement to deepen further the comprehensive partnership shared by their countries. It can be also said that Mr. Kim managed to bridge differences with Washington over the U.S. national missile defense system, which had been the source of friction between the two allies.

Of particular note in the statement is the Bush administration's pledge to maintain the existing basic framework of the Clinton administration's North Korea policy. We can look positively at the outcome of the summit in that Mr. Bush expressed support for the South Korean government's policy of engagement with North Korea and its leadership in resolving inter-Korean ties, as well as the reaffirmation of the commitment to continue the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Despite our deep concerns when the Bush administration was inaugurated that it would abrogate the process by special envoy William Perry, the recent summit talks confirmed that the framework of the alliance between the two countries remains strong.

But we must not become complacent with the summit results. Although the two heads of state reached a broad agreement on the generalities of an alliance and North Korea policy, various problems could erupt during the discussion and implementing of the details. For instance, the Washington summit emphasized the need to further deepen the traditional South Korea-U.S. alliance, but we still cannot entirely dismiss the possibility of an erosion of ties during Mr. Bush's term of office.

Of particular concern is the change in the status of the United States Forces in Korea. Incremental improvement in North-South relations can touch off disputes in South Korea and the United States on the reduction and withdrawal of the U.S. forces. Several key figures in the Bush administration, one of whom is Deputy Secretary of State-designate Richard Armitage, have already called for a partial reduction of ground troops, regardless of changes in North-South relations.

Assertions of this nature are a warning of the likelihood of the South Korea-U.S. alliance running into snags. It is also likely that discussions on changing the status of U.S. forces in South Korea will be tied increasingly with the issue of defense cost sharing.

That the two heads of state reached an understanding on the national missile-defense issue is reassuring, but we cannot rule out the possibility of friction marring bilateral relations in the event the U.S. national missile-defense plan expands to a theater missile defense system in Northeast Asia. Since Mr. Kim has already announced that he has no intention of joining any TMD plan pursued at the United States, it would be difficult for him to shift position and participate in that program. NMD and TMD are issues that have to be settled in the future.

Mr. Bush's explicit expression of support for Seoul's engagement policy with North Korea and a reaffirmation to continue the 1994 Geneva nuclear agreement was an unexpected achievement. But judging from what Mr. Bush said in the joint press conference, a great distance seems to separate the two countries in their perceptions of North Korea policy. The difference between the two leaders' perception of North Korea itself seems to be even greater, as was unmistakably evident in Mr. Bush's statement that he is skeptical of the North Korean leader and that he still perceives North Korea as a threat.

We can also see discrepancies in the two countries' positions from their manner of negotiating with North Korea. Mr. Bush said that his administration looks forward to a dialogue with North Korea at some point in the future, but that any negotiations would require complete verification of the terms. This announcement points to the Bush administration's intention of rigidly applying the principles of reciprocity and verification in negotiating with North Korea, and also heralds possible discord with South Korea.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's remark that the nature and direction of the U.S. negotiations with North Korea will be determined only after an overall review of North Korea-U.S. relations is another source of concern. But all in all, Mr. Kim's first diplomatic meeting with the Bush administration can be considered a success. Even so, it is too soon for optimism; there are countless hidden snares waiting for us along the way in South Korea-U.S. alliance and in bilateral cooperation over North Korea. We should take heed not to become overly confident but carry out a prudent diplomacy toward the United States, always bearing in mind the uncertainties.

by Moon Chung-in

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