[TODAY]Some briefing notes for the envoy

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[TODAY]Some briefing notes for the envoy

As an old saying goes, the shadow of Mount Suyang stretches for 30 kilometers. Like the humble mountain in China that rises less than 350 meters, the shade cast by a powerful world leader reaches ?for better or for worse ?far from his or her immediate area. Inter-Korea relations, which have remained frozen largely because of U.S. President George W. Bush's distrust of the North, now may thaw because of the amount of heat generated by his hard-line policies toward Pyeongyang. Admit-tedly, the United States has played "Mount Suyang" and has cast a gloomy shadow on our determination to solve our "household" problems by ourselves. But it is also true that Mr. Bush's shade has paved the way for a South Korean special envoy to visit North Korea and to resume inter-Korean talks.

In the last days of the Clinton administration, Pyeongyang believed that a historic breakthrough in talks with the United States was possible. Washington was coaxing it to give up its missile exports in return for other benefits, and North Korea seemed to gain confidence in a "U.S. first, South second" strategy.

Then came Mr. Bush, who thinks communism is an "axis of evil." In practice, he has torn down Mr. Clinton's policy of embracing Pyeongyang and applied the brakes on President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine" policy. A year ago, Mr. Kim went to Washington smiling, but returned crying.

The proposals that the Bush administration has offered to North Korea so far are almost too stringent for Pyeongyang to accept. The United States has proposed "talks without any preconditions" but has still demanded the verification of nuclear and missile agreements and withdrawal of conventional arms from the front lines. With all of American society taking a harder line after the Sept. 11 incident, Washington has heightened its pressure on North Korea. In his State of the Union address, Mr. Bush called North Korea a member of an "axis of evil," and a recent U.S. Defense Department review of the American nuclear posture included the North in a group of countries that could be nuclear targets. Mr. Bush also refused to verify to the U.S. Congress that the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework has stopped the North's nuclear weapons program. The war in Afghanistan would also have sent shivers down North Korea's spine. A war that many thought would drag on was over in three months. It is not hard to imagine what the North must have thought when it saw the Taliban government in Afghanistan collapse so abruptly.

So the "U.S. first, South second" strategy fell apart in the face of Mr. Bush's hard line. Now Pyeongyang has turned its eyes toward the South again and has beckoned for a special envoy from Seoul. One of the tasks for Lim Dong-won, President Kim's special adviser on North Korean issues, is to determine whether Pyeongyang has indeed given up on its "U.S. first" strategy and explain the benefits of a "South first, U.S. second" line.

But putting Seoul before Washington has practical limits. Pyeongyang's talks with Seoul must be accompanied by dialogue with Washington and Tokyo as well. We have felt in our bones this past 15 months how difficult North-South talks can be when North Korea-U.S. relations are frozen. Mr. Lim should tell the North bluntly that the world has changed since Sept. 11.

Mr. Lim has specific issues to discuss in Pyeongyang: reunions of separated families, completion of the inter-Korean Gyeongui rail line, cooperation on Mount Geumgang tours and the opening of an industrial complex at Gaeseong. All these issues can be implemented quickly if North Korea agrees. In some ways, it is a blessing for the South that Pyeongyang fears the United States and has turned its eyes from Washington to Seoul.

Seoul should not grovel for a visit by the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to Seoul. Groveling is a shortcut to failure. Mr. Kim will travel here only in the end-game, when the stakes are at their highest. The compensation that the North would demand for such a visit would be well beyond the abilities of a minority ruling party and a lame-duck president. The Kim administration was accused of using inter-Korean issues for politics when a North-South agreement for the historic summit meeting was announced right before the general election in 2000. If President Kim has in mind a political show featuring a performance by Kim Jong-il, I urge him to change his mind. This is the last chance to salvage the sunshine policy that is thoroughly distrusted here and abroad. President Kim should rise above partisanship and deal with North Korea strategically and conceptually. Preparing the ground for future talks is as important as producing immediate agreements.


The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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