[OUTLOOK]Leave the U.S. laggards behindPresident Kim Dae-jung and his administration have persisted in their belief that progress in North-South Korean relations was impossible without progress in North Korea-U.S. relations. That was why the Kim Dae-jung administration had been so persistently asking the United States to soften its position and improve its relations with the North; even now, Seoul is hammering away at the same point.
The U.S. response to the Korean government's request, however, is half-hearted at best. Certainly the U.S. government outwardly expresses its support for the "sunshine policy" but the majority sentiment inside the Bush administration is that President Kim's warmhearted policy has produced very few results despite all the years he has been wooing the North.
The official position of the United States is that it is prepared to talk with Pyeongyang anytime, anywhere on any issue. But when President George W. Bush and his staff say they want to talk with North Korea, they mean that they want to talk about concrete measures on controlling specific weapons in North Korea, not just "any" issue for the sake of bettering relations or alleviating the tension in their relations.
In contrast to the U.S. position, the South Korean government has somewhat abstract and more comprehensive objectives in its open-armed policies towards its Northern counterpart. Peace, reconciliation, cooperation, alleviation of tension: These are all concepts that need some interpretation to adapt them to real life.
Seen from the U.S. perspective, Seoul needs to put forward a more concrete negotiating goal and lay out a negotiating strategy to achieve that goal. The problem is that even within the U.S. government, opinions are divided in just what to do with North Korea. There are hard-liners who press for a change in the regime in North Korea as their first goal, while others say that controlling the North's proliferation of missiles and suspected development of weapons of mass destruction is enough.
These differences of opinion have made the establishment of a consensus in the Bush administration hard to come by.
Just when least expected, the naval clash in the Yellow Sea occurred. The sudden attack by North Korean warships on South Korean patrol ships in the Yellow Sea seemed to lend credibility to what the hard-liners in the U.S. government were saying. Even after the attack, the South Korean government said that it would go on with its old policies and stance on North Korea as if nothing had happened.
The United States, on the other hand, canceled a scheduled visit to Pyeongyang by an American diplomat. The U.S.-North talks ended before they got started.
Surprisingly, North Korea's reaction to the U.S. hard-line stance came in a completely different manner than the South Korean government had expected. Had Seoul been right in its assumptions, North-South relations should have deteriorated along with North-U.S relations after that incident.
But after Washington refused talks with Pyeongyang, the North Koreans have actually expressed regret for the Yellow Sea incident and suggested holding a ministerial meeting with South Korea. Pyeongyang must have surely recognized the necessity of approaching the South after its relations with Washington went from bad to worse.
North Korea's approach to the South after the Yellow Sea incident is an unavoidable strategic gesture for Pyeongyang in both economic and geopolitical perspectives.
We would be foolish to dismiss North Korea's gesture because it came with strategic strings attached. We should guard against undue optimism about the North's objectives.
The United States is also an important factor in the equation, of course. First of all, our government should abandon its previous presumption that only an improvement in U.S.-North Korea relations would bring improvement to North-South relations.
This is just not true, and if we abandon that hypothesis, our entire diplomacy with the United States must be changed. We should stop pleading with Washington to improve its ties with the North and concentrate on explaining to them what we are doing in our diplomacy with the North and why.
What would the U.S. reaction to this change be? That depends ultimately on North Korea. Specifically, the U.S. position will depend on Pyeongyang's attitude toward weapons of mass destruction.
We will have to include that issue in our diplomatic agenda with the North; if it is not solved, neither North-South nor North Korea-U.S. relations will improve and there will be no chance of peace in Northeast Asia.
The writer is the president of the Institute of Social Sciences.
by Kim Kyung-won