[TODAY]Summit clouded by lack of trust

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[TODAY]Summit clouded by lack of trust

It seems like the former American ambassadors to South Korea won't be visiting Pyeongyang. The visit was reportedly postponed on the advice of the U.S. State Department, but there is the shadow of the White House looming in the background.

U.S. Senator Trent Lott, the minority leader from Mississippi, who is visiting Seoul, canceled an exclusive interview with the JoongAng Ilbo but relented later on the condition that there should be no questions about affairs on the Korean Peninsula. The White House, the senator's aides hinted, was not too keen on the interview.

U.S. President George W. Bush seems to be expecting something dramatic from his meeting with President Kim Dae-jung on Feb. 20. Bush's "axis of evil" speech, the strong words against North Korea by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the U.S. national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, all add up to a torrent of rhetoric perhaps reaching its climax at the summit meeting. Four American ambassadors in Pyeongyang and a U. S. senator's interview in Seoul are not exactly the stage props President Bush wants dramatizing his visit.

Mr. Bush is coming to Seoul with his "axis of evil" speech still reverberating. Evil is to be destroyed, not to be aided or talked to. President Kim will greet the American president with another story. North Korea is not an absolute evil and even if there is an element of evil in the North, we can deal with it with concessions and warm sunshine.

If changing Mr. Bush's mind and policy toward North Korea is Mr. Kim's agenda, this summit meeting is going to be no picnic; there is not much leeway for discussions. How can a constructive agreement on North Korea be possible when North Korea is already branded as part of an "axis of evil?"

Mr. Bush has made no secret of his skepticism and distrust of North Korea, but his staff and State Department had always been there in the past to smooth his words over. This time, reportedly, the State Department has been ordered by Secretary Powell not to say anything that goes against the president's stated policy. Secretary Powell's moderation toward North Korea has bowed out to the president's hard-line attitude.

How have matters come to this point? One of the reasons may be that the war in Afghanistan ended much earlier and easier than expected, and an elated President Bush decided that the hegemonic, unilateral diplomacy that brought him his victory there would work elsewhere. Sunshine in Afghanistan for President Bush has made South Korea's sunshine policy turn cloudy.

The Bush administration clearly says that North Korea should stop its missile exports, submit to inspections of its nuclear facilities and relocate its troops away from their forward positions before any talks can begin. At the same time, it calls for talks anytime, anywhere with anyone without any preconditions. This is a self-contradiction.

The biggest problem here is that the United States is setting as conditions for talks with North Korea the very issues that the talks should be dealing with. It will not be easy for North Korea to bow to pressure. It must be remembered that North Korea did propose some reasonable steps in missile, nuclear weapons and terrorism issues toward the end of the Clinton administration.

This summit in Seoul is going to be a strange one. President Bush is going to be wagging his finger at President Kim and warning of an "axis of evil" while they shake hands in mutual support of the sunshine policy. It will take more than government statements for me to believe that everything is just fine with the South Korea-U.S. relation and that President Bush is going to bring us a "gift." What did the government do during the year after the summit meeting last March in Washington that led to "axis of evil?" How can an agreement be possible if North Korea is seen as evil?

President Bush's allergy to North Korea, his black-or-white logic, and the South Korean government's soft attitude toward the United States have driven the U.S.-South Korea relationship to this crisis. What the two countries need more than an agreement about North Korea at this point is trust. President Kim seems to have annoyed Mr. Bush by signing a joint communique with Russian President Vladimir Putin last March, emphasizing the importance of strengthening and keeping the ABM Tready, and hinting that he would like a joint peace declaration with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-il if the latter visits Seoul.

If the U.S.-South Korea relationship is affected by such annoyances, that certainly suggests that there is more than a little trust to be restored so that the breach can be repaired.


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The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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