[TODAY]Talks - at least for the time being

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[TODAY]Talks - at least for the time being

While Korean journalists in Los Cabos, Mexico, were reading U.S. President George W. Bush's lips, the American and European journalists were concentrating on the basic strategy of the Bush administration after North Korea's admission that it has a nuclear weapons development program. What came out of President Bush's mouth was a statement that North Korea could expect financial aid from international society should it give up its nuclear program.

And what was the basic strategy of the United States expressed by President Bush in separate meetings with the leaders of South Korea, China and Japan, and then in the tripartite meeting with President Kim and Prime Minister Koizumi later on? It was that sanctions against North Korea should not be hurried, and that Northeast Asian countries had to form a coalition to put firm but subtle pressure on North Korea.

The New York Times reported that President Bush seemed satisfied with "slowly" forming a consensus on the North Korean nuclear issue in contrast to his actions concerning Iraq. The Financial Times has also pointed out that Mr. Bush has neither proposed economic sanctions against North Korea nor demanded an immediate stop to South Korean and Japanese talks with Pyeongyang. It reported that the U.S. president seemed ready to form an "unhurried" international coalition to deal with North Korea.

Both the New York Times and the Financial Times reports on the Bush administration's North Korea policy included a quote from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Mr. Powell said he wanted to make clear that the U.S. government would act with patience and caution so as not to create a crisis in Northeast Asia.

All this might be a little disappointing to those who expected the results of Los Cabos to include a hard-line stance against North Korea led actively by the leaders of South Korea, the United States and Japan and agreed to, if less enthusiastically, by the Russian and Chinese leaders. That is quite a difference from the shock and controversy we saw after Pyeong-yang's admission of a nuclear program was revealed, but it is hardly surprising. Mr. Bush and his foreign affairs and security advisers say they will not tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea, but have always thought optimistically that with cooperation from South Korea and other regional powers, North Korea could be made to give up its nuclear weapons. Such optimism was based on the calculation that North Korea's nuclear program is not yet a threat to South Korea, Japan or the United States.

Thus, a deal was made at Los Cabos between President Bush on one side and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Juni-chiro Koizumi on the other. The United States agreed that South Korea and Japan would continue their talks with North Korea and South Korea and Japan agreed to make nuclear wea-pons the priority in their talks with Pyeongyang. Mr. Koizumi announced that ending North Korea's nuclear program would be a prerequisite for the normalization of relations between Japan and North Korea.

Perhaps the United States yielded because it does not really expect any progress to be made through dialogue be-tween North Korea and Japan or South Korea. Making the nuclear problem the centerpiece of their discussions would only hamper their talks with Pyeongyang. North Korea was adamant that it would only talk with the United States about its nuclear program. The New York Times reported that part of Washington's North Korea strategy is to wait for President Kim's term to end before moving; that also sounds plausible.

North Korea pranced into the minister-level meeting with South Korea just days after admitting to its nuclear program. It started the project of connecting the railroads and roads between North and South Korea and sent a delegation to Seoul for a tour of South Korean industry. It has also started negotiations for normalization with Japan. Such a two-faced attitude by North Korea is confusing, to say the least, but it is a reflection of Pyeongyang's desire to talk with South Korea, Japan and the United States.

But time is running out for North-South reconciliation. President Kim, a faithful friend of Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, will soon be leaving office. What will come post-Kim Dae-jung is not clear, and once Mr. Bush is done with Iraq, the carrots that the United States is offering to Pyeongyang at present might just turn into sticks.

* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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