[OUTLOOK]Soft-liners reign, for now

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[OUTLOOK]Soft-liners reign, for now

I mentioned in my column two weeks ago that North Korea seems to have a softer attitude toward South Korea recently. I also note now that America’s attitude toward North Korea has become softer, too.
America avoided using the term “Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Dismantlement” at the third round of six-way talks in Beijing at the end of June out of consideration for North Korea, which does not like the term at all.
The United States had maintained that it could listen to North Korea’s demands only after North Korea discarded its nuclear weapons, but it stated at the recent six-way talks that it is willing to start negotiations if North Korea promises to discard the weapons.
Also, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the North Korean minister of foreign affairs met and discussed pending issues between the two countries at the Asean Regional Forum in Jakarta, Indonesia, last week. It is reported that Secretary Colin Powell’s attitude toward his North Korean counterpart was extremely soft.
The reason why North Korea has become softer is because of its strategic goals and the circumstances surrounding it, especially its economic situation. Then, why is it that the Bush administration, which had been so firm toward North Korea in the past, has changed to set a course for a softer approach?
First of all, it can be said that the American presidential election is a reason. Basically, President Bush wants the whole world to remain peaceful from now until election day. For an incumbent U.S. president who seeks re-election, it is advantageous that the world is peaceful. In Northeast Asia and on the Korean Peninsula, what President Bush wants is to see no crisis or emergency situation break out.
Moreover, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry takes the position regarding the North Korean nuclear issue that he would set negotiations with North Korea directly. President Bush has not been able to explain clearly and in simple terms to the people of the United States why negotiations with North Korea have not been working. It is possible that the Bush administration reached the conclusion that if it were difficult to explain to people the reason why it was not possible to have direct talks with the North so far, maybe they should steal John Kerry’s position and act first.
Although the new attempt is being made within the bounds of the six-way talks, it has become difficult to say since the last rounds of the six-way talks that the Bush administration has rejected talks with North Korea.
Therefore, it can be said that the position of the neo-conservatives, the hard-liners of the United States, has been getting weaker, while that of those belonging to the moderate middle-road wing is getting stronger in the advent of the American presidential elections. And this new political reality created in connection with the U.S. presidential election has made the Bush administration softer.
International reality is another reason why America has become softer. The six-way talks were held due to the proposal of the United States, but the talks are not always advantageous to Washington. In fact, it has become clear that North Korea is pursuing a strategy of isolating the United States by making use of the framework of the six-way talks. At the last round, which was held at the end of June, the United States threw the ball into the North Korean court by showing a flexible attitude toward direct North Korea-U.S. talks and matters related to the procedures of nuclear weapons negotiations. Now it is North Korea’s turn to hit the ball.
Finally, the United States has turned the direction of its North Korea policy to an angle that the South Korean government wants by adopting a softer attitude toward North Korea in negotiations. In a way, it can be seen as America showing its gratitude toward South Korea for sticking to the plan of deploying more soldiers to Iraq despite much hardship on the part of the Korean government. Anyhow, America’s change of attitude toward North Korea is something that South Korea should welcome greatly.
So does this mean the North Korean nuclear problem will finally be resolved? There are still too many problems piled up for us to be optimistic. It will take a lot of time in taking care of only the technical problems such as inclusion of the highly enriched uranium program in the negotiations, the definition of “peaceful use of nuclear power” and the adoption of inspection methods. Besides technical problems, what matters most is the political will of North Korea ― whether it will really give up nuclear weapons after all is said and done.
If North Korea rejects Washington’s terms for negotiations, the reaction of the United States could be very strong. When the presidential election is over, as it will become difficult for China and Russia, let alone U.S. allies such as Korea and Japan, to criticize the negotiating terms of the United States, it could be said that the United States will have more room to take its own choice of action.
There is no way to know whether North Korea is aware of this fact. If they do not understand the reality, they could make a huge misjudgment. We also have to set a plan to deter such a situation.

* The writer, a former ambassador to the United States, is a professor emeritus at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Kyung-won
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