[TODAY]U.S., not the North, is a barrier

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[TODAY]U.S., not the North, is a barrier

It is a pity that North Korea pulled the plug on inter-Korean economic talks just as they were about to take place. But we must not forget that the fundamental reason North Korea backed off from the meeting is because of the Bush administration's hard-line policies toward Pyeongyang. That is clear from observing the atmosphere in Pyeongyang. The North Korean constitution of 1998 shifted the power base of the North Korean leader from the Workers' Party to the military.

A North Korea expert, Selig Harrison, described the change at the time as a bloodless military coup. The military prevails over the party in the decision making and in influence, and Mr. Kim rules over the military as chairman of the National Defense Commission.

The North Korean leader's policy is to place the military first. While he holds total control over the military authorities, he is trying to bend it to be a supporter of reform and open-door policies. It is not a coincidence that Mr. Kim sent General Jo Myong-rok, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, to Washington.

In 1991, when North Korean leader Kim Il Sung was still alive, the reformists won over the hard-liners in policy debates in the Central Committee of the Workers' Party. As a result, Pyeongyang accepted nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The group in Pyeongyang opposing reforms set in motion the nuclear confrontation with the United States in 1993 and 1994, but the reformists won out when North Korea agreed to the Geneva Framework in 1994, on condition that the United States arrange the construction of two nuclear reactors and end economic sanctions. There was also a pledge by the United States to work toward normal diplomatic relations.

And how does Washington see things? Contrary to common belief, it was the United States that did not keep its end of the bargain agreed to in Geneva. In article 2 of the agreement, Washington agreed to lift restrictions on trade and investment within six months after signing the agreement. But the Clinton administration lifted only partially the sanctions six years after the agreement, in June, 2000.

When the Bush administration was inaugurated, the United States hardened its position toward the North. The Bush administration shows no interest in normalizing relations with North Korea, and has taken the position that individual issues, such as terrorism and missiles, must be solved. The U.S. government seems to believe that North Korea will eventually collapse.

Considering the thinking in Pyeongyang and Washington, the cancellation of the inter-Korean talks can be understood. President George W. Bush is anathema to Pyeongyang. The reformists in Pyeongyang may be grinding their teeth in frustration over the fiasco that has become of their plan to revive the stagnant North Korean economy with support from the International Monetary Fund because of Mr. Bush's hard line. The group opposed to reforms will block the resumption of inter-Korean talks and talks with Washington.

North Korea accepted visits by our special envoy to Pyeongyang, Lim Dong-won, and Washington's envoy, Jack Pritchard. The credit for the visits may have to go to the stick applied by the Bush administration. Foreign Minister Choi Sung-hong made the mistake of telling the truth, giving the pretext that Pyeongyang's hard-liners needed to scuttle the inter-Korean economic talks.

North Korea craves normalizing relations with Washington. Pyeongyang saw that the Clinton administration's partial lifting of economic sanctions on Pyeongyang opened the door for its relations with Canada, Australia and several European countries. Despite its anti-American propaganda, Pyeongyang feels the magnitude of American influence.

Even though Kim Jong-il has total control over the military, we can presume that the military is dragging its feet on economic cooperation because the North's survival strategy would be threatened if security is compromised because of moves to increase economic relations. Opinions differ in North Korea, too.

Conservative groups in Seoul and Washington claim that North Korea has not changed, but it is rather the United States that has not changed. The Clinton administration's engagement policy towards the North started with the presumption that Pyeongyang would collapse, but it revised that assessment after the Perry report. The Bush administration is again backing a policy of ignoring North Korea. As long as Washington acts that way, North Korea will not appear at meetings that it has promised to attend. Seoul has to urge the Bush administration to change, not Pyeongyang.


The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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