[TODAY]Personal animosity, conciliationA prominent American journalist visiting Seoul to cover North Korea's nuclear program said at a dinner with Korean journalists a few nights ago that U.S. President George W. Bush's statement last Friday was the "moral equivalent" of a U.S. nonaggression treaty. That sounded like a bold opinion to me. Americans like to use that expression, "moral equivalent," whenever they refer to something that isn't quite officially so is more or less so in reality.
The expression seems similar to one that Yun Po-sun used when he lost to Park Chung Hee by 160,000 votes in the 1963 presidential election. Mr. Yun called himself the "moral" president of South Korea. In last Friday's statement, Mr. Bush welcomed the KEDO decision to not send North Korea any more shipments of crude oil until it abandons its nuclear program and declared that he would not tolerate North Korea's violation of international agreements. Mr. Bush then went on to say that the United States had no intention of invading North Korea and that it wanted a different future with North Korea.
There were two types of reaction to Mr. Bush's statement. One, coming from North Korea, was a negative one that saw the statement as animosity disguised as a peace offensive. A more positive reaction from certain experts was that Mr. Bush's statement was a gesture of appeasement to forestall any unpredictable action from North Korea over the suspension of crude oil shipments. Now the latest and most positive opinion is that the statement was the moral equivalent of a nonaggression pact.
Before talking about Mr. Bush's statement, the Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward's book "Bush at War," was the topic for Korean and American journalists. Mr. Woodward had a lengthy interview with Mr. Bush while he was writing his book; Mr. Bush reportedly told him that he "loathed" Kim Jong-il. The book makes the point that nuclear weapons and missiles aside, Mr. Bush has a personal animosity toward Mr. Kim. This is the man who spat out tough talk about an "axis of evil."
And it is the same Mr. Bush who offered a conciliatory hand to North Korea and proposed to open up a new future together after North Korea defiantly admitted that it has an ongoing nuclear program.
How to interpret the statement is a matter of personal opinion. But instead of the hard-line stance many expected him to take when North Korea made its shocking nuclear revelation, Mr. Bush has indeed held up a carrot with an appropriate mixture of sticks.
In a news conference early this month, Mr. Bush emphasized that North Korea was different from Iraq, so the policies toward the two countries would be different. Neither does it seem correct to say that Mr. Bush is putting North Korea aside for the moment while he concentrates on dealing with Iraq. If that were the case, he would not have made statements of appeasement that will be applauded by moderates in South Korea, Japan and China.
For Mr. Bush's statement to be called the "moral equivalent" of a nonaggression pact and for North Korea-U.S. talks to resume and eventually produce improved relations, several conditions are necessary. North Korea must accept Mr. Bush's invitation, making his statement an excuse for declaring its abandonment of its nuclear program. In the absence of such a step, if the shipments of crude oil end in December, the crisis on the Korean Peninsula that pundits are warning of could become a reality.
Negotiating with North Korea seems like the cursed job of Sisyphus rolling his rock to the top of the hill. Just when the peak is in sight, the rock slips and rolls down the hill again. All talks between both Koreas have been like that, and talks between the North and Japan are even worse. They have soured dramatically since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyeong-yang last September.
So many people have urged patience in dealing with North Korea for so long that the advice is getting shopworn. The next move is North Korea's, so we might as well relax for a while. If Pyeongyang is waiting for the December election here, there is nothing we can do now.
As I have said before, the Kim Dae-jung administration should abandon any ambition of achieving historic deeds during the short time it has left.
Opinion leaders, whether hard-liners or moderates, should refrain from extravagant rhetoric and wait for the North's next move.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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