[TODAY]Lessons from 'what if?' scenarios

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[TODAY]Lessons from 'what if?' scenarios

Many scholars scoff at the idea that there is value in applying "what if?" scenarios to history and historical events, but they can be constructive in interpreting the past and planning for similar future situations.

In late 2000, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton almost visited North Korea. If that trip had taken place, the Korean Peninsula would be a very different place today; what would U.S.-North Korea relations have been like if the trip had been made?

I have often commented in my columns that North Korea has made proposals on missile issues that the United States could easily have accepted. In a newly-issued revised version of "The Two Koreas," a book by Don Oberdorfer, an American expert on Korean affairs, are some detailed insights about that missile proposal from Pyeongyang. The author asserts that had Mr. Clinton visited Pyeongyang, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, might have made significant concessions on the North's missile program. In new sections of the book dealing with the missile negotiations, the author details the events surrounding the near-trip, basing his narrative on lengthy discussions with participants in the negotiations.

On Oct. 9, 2000, Jo Myung-rok, the first vice chairman of the DPRK National Defense Committee, carried to Washington a letter from Kim Jong-il to Mr. Clinton. Mr. Clinton, following the advice of his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, replied to Mr. Kim that he would visit Pyeongyang if negotiations on several major issues were ripe for settlement. He would, he said, send Ms. Albright to Pyeongyang to negotiate such settlements.

Kang Sok-ju, the first vice minister of foreign affairs, told Wendy Sherman, a senior State Department official, that the North would stop exporting ballistic missiles and accept the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea. In return, he asked the United States to compensate the North - not in cash but in supplies of food and in the provision of launch facilities for three or four North Korean scientific satellites. He also said the North wanted to open diplomatic relations with the United States.

When Secretary Albright visited Pyeongyang on Oct. 23, she made some specific proposals to Kim Jong-il. She asked that development work be halted on all missiles with a range of over 500 kilometers, including both versions of the North's Daepodong missiles. Pyeong-yang said it would accept the proposal and verification measures demanded by Washington, repeated its request for food and added other requests for clothing and energy supplies.

It was clear, Mr. Oberdorfer says, that the North craved a visit by the U.S. president. If Mr. Clinton visited the North, it could shed its U.S.-imposed label of a "rogue state" and bolster both its sovereignty and its relations with the world's sole superpower. Those political gains were the North's true objective.

Mr. Kim and Ms. Albright agreed to prepare for a presidential visit, but the situation in Washington turned unfavorable. Those opposing a visit asserted that there was not enough time to settle the issues and prepare for Mr. Clinton to visit Pyeongyang before he left office. Moreover, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was heating up again. In the meantime, the electoral mess in Florida was finally settled and George W. Bush was declared the winner of the November balloting; we all know what happened then.

Looking back, the definitive moment when North Korea missed its chance to normalize diplomatic relations with the United States was in May 1999.

William Perry, a U.S. presidential envoy, suggested a dialogue with the North in 1999 on the premise that the United States would offer to recognize the North. He also suggested that a meeting with the North could be held after the North stopped exporting its long-range missiles and the United States lifted its economic sanctions. The North hesitated, but in September 1999 announced a moratorium on missile launches and some U.S. sanctions were lifted in response. Neither country moved forward from that point for the rest of the Clinton administration.

Now with the United States fighting a war on terror, the situation for the North is worse than ever. Not only has the United States been reminded of the fact that the North is a terrorist-sponsoring country, but Washington's priorities are now focused elsewhere. As a result, inter-Korean dialogue has dragged to a halt. What if the North Koreans had reacted quickly to Mr. Perry's idea? What if a missile agreement had been reached and Mr. Clinton had become the first U.S. president to visit the North? The difference in relations between Seoul and Pyeongyang would have been dramatic.


The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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