[OUTLOOK] U.S. Ties Outweigh Northern Sunshine

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[OUTLOOK] U.S. Ties Outweigh Northern Sunshine

The summit in Washington on March 7 between Presidents George W. Bush and Kim Dae-jung will be an event of paramount importance for determining the method and speed of future dealings with Pyongyang. According to the South Korean authorities, the summit agenda will cover strengthening the bilateral alliance and systems of cooperation on North Korea, economy and trade, and cooperation in global issues. These agenda items, however, may be just for show, because the two heads of state will be hard pressed to synchronize their plans concerning North Korea in the limited time available.

South Korea and the United States have never before experienced such strong discord over North Korean issues as they are experiencing now. Although the atmosphere was strained during the 1979 summit between Presidents Park and Carter, that discord was caused by our objections to the planned withdrawal of some U.S. forces and the U.S. administration's objections to our human rights regime.

This time, problems arose because of the Bush administration's determination not to be deceived by North Korea's tricks while unilaterally pouring in aid, such as crude oil, and not to rush into normalizing relations with the North. U.S. concern about Mt. Kumgang tourism receipts being used to strengthen Pyongyang's military capabilities is also tantamount to discontent with South Korea. We can infer the U.S. resentment from its reply to Republic of Korea's repeated emphasis on the importance of ROK-U.S. cooperation during the recent foreign ministerial talks: the United States replied that it wants to stress the importance of cooperation far more than Seoul does ?in effect a demand that South Korea match its pace with the United States in dealing with North Korea.

The situation poses a considerable challenge for Mr. Kim, who hopes to change the current state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula within his presidency. Mr. Kim sent his National Intelligence Service chief to Washington on Feb. 11 to meet Secretary of State Colin Powell and other officials immediately following the foreign ministerial talks. Mr. Kim's actions gave the impression of a man determined to pursue his own agenda, and also spawned speculation that he was trying to arrange North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's visit to Seoul ahead of the summit with President Bush. In any case, South Korea confirmed the negative U.S. perception of the North through those recent contacts - skepticism about any fundamental change in North Korea's policy and demands for verification of Pyongyang's compliance with agreements on weapons of mass destruction.

During the Clinton administration, however, the United States and South Korea almost competed with each other to pull North Korea out of a critical condition. The Geneva nuclear agreement and the almost-arranged visit by Mr. Clinton to the North were the fruits of U.S. efforts. South Korea, meanwhile, changed the course of events by carrying off the Pyongyang summit and is now trying to maintain that momentum through Chairman Kim's reciprocal visit to Seoul.

In other words, Seoul-Washington ties were neglected or experienced friction as North Korea-U.S. relations and North-South relations advanced rapidly. The beginning of the Bush administration then brought forecasts of cloudy conditions in relations among the two Koreas and the United States. As was the case during the recent foreign ministers' talks, the United States reportedly intends to mostly listen to what South Korea has to say during the upcoming summit. Mr. Kim might want to keep the following thoughts in mind:

First, he has to remember that the rift in ROK-U.S. relations was caused by the sunshine policy. Obstinacy, an attribute of power, makes it difficult to close the gap, but he has to recall the traditional spirit of cooperation between the two countries. He would also best abandon the notion that "people of the same nation are better than an alliance with a foreign country." The leaders should reaffirm that ROK-U.S. relations take precedence over North-South or U.S.-North relations.

Second, Mr. Kim should resist the urge to try to change the fundamental U.S. perception of North Korea. Reciprocity is the most basic principle in foreign policy. He should not turn the summit with Mr. Bush into a discussion forum on this issue. Instead, he should seek agreement on cooperative measures on such projects as humanitarian aid for the North.

Third, Mr. Kim has to recognize that it takes time to mend relations with the United States and for the United States to give concrete shape to its North Korea policy. He has to face the fact that North-South relations will thus have to go through a cooling-off period. The statement issued by North Korea's Foreign Ministry on February 21, a threat to abrogate the Geneva agreement, is a signal that its relations with the United States and also with the South have already begun to slow down.

Mr. Kim must not go overboard on Chairman Kim's visit to Seoul. He has to empty his mind of ambitious goals and not try to outpace time.

by Lee Chang-choon

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