[Overseas view] What Roh wanted from BushIn a joint press conference after their bilateral meeting at the APEC Summit in Sydney, Australia, President Roh Moo-hyun pressed President George W. Bush to “clarify” that he supports a peace treaty with North Korea. When Bush responded that Kim Jong-il would have to cease his nuclear weapons program in a verifiable manner for there to be a peace treaty, Roh did not let it rest. He pressed again for Bush to “clarify” that a peace treaty should come before complete denuclearization. Bush would not do that, simply stating that he had been as clear as he could be. After the exchange, staff and professional diplomats on both sides rushed to explain that the two leaders were in complete harmony on their approach to North Korea, noting that Bush had said on camera it was a “good meeting.”
The U.S. press was not buying it. The lead story on National Public Radio that morning emphasized the clash between the two leaders over the issue of a peace treaty. The Washington Post and other papers made it one of their lead international stories the next day, once they had a chance to review the transcript and the tapes. Having been in these meetings before, I have to confess that I think the U.S. press is right. There is not a common view between the two leaders on the peace treaty issue. Watching the exchange later on YouTube.com, I felt great sympathy for my former national security colleagues in both countries, since I’ve also had to “explain” apparent gaps between the leaders on more than one occasion. However, this one was the biggest I had ever seen and veteran White House reporters knew what they were watching.
The exchange over the peace treaty issue reveals how unpredictable Roh is in these summit meetings. Before going in front of the press, the leaders and their staffs usually huddle to anticipate any questions and to put the best possible spin on their meeting. That rarely works with Roh. I cannot think of another foreign leader ever pressing the president of the United States to “clarify” a position in front of the press in this way. There is a certain charm in a head of state who will not be scripted, I have to admit, but in this case it was hard not to suspect that Roh had an objective in mind and was not merely extemporizing.
What was Roh’s objective? The obvious answer would be that he wanted to extract a public commitment from Bush on delinking the peace treaty from denuclearization. But if this was Roh’s goal, he set it back with this exchange. There is already agreement between them on the need to work on a peace mechanism formally ending the Korean War. That is an extremely complicated task, of course, and Bush and senior officials in his administration are considering how to proceed without appearing to reward North Korea for testing nuclear weapons or inadvertently weakening deterrence and defense capabilities before the threat of attack from the North is truly reduced.
By pushing publicly for a clear separation of the peace treaty and the denuclearization process before the two governments and the two leaders had worked out the exact plan, Roh ended up with precisely the answer he did not want. Going into the summit, there was a consensus in Washington that the peace mechanism talks should go forward with the exact linkage to the denuclearization process to be worked out if there is progress. Now the linkage between denuclearization and a peace treaty has been made firm by the president of the United States ― and in front of the entire world.
But perhaps Roh never really expected Bush to commit publicly to delinking the peace treaty from the nuclear talks. Some Korea watchers in Washington are speculating that Roh had a different objective. The Blue House and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been looking at a “framework for peace” that would begin the process of negotiating a peace mechanism as Roh’s legacy. The subsequent negotiations would be complex and would take five or 10 years before completion, which would also leave time to keep working on denuclearization. By this logic, Roh does not expect a formal peace treaty during his term. However, he does want a successful summit with Kim Jong-il and some observers suspect that this exchange was a deliberate performance to demonstrate Roh’s bona fides to the North before the October North-South summit. If true, this would not be the first time Roh has used a summit with Bush in this way, the previous example being the Santiago APEC Summit in 2004, in which the U.S. side was surprised to find Roh calling on the U.S. president to be more flexible in a speech in Los Angeles just a day before the two leaders met in Chile. The U.S. press made a big deal of that one too, though it is not clear that it paid off in subsequent meetings with the North.
There are so many things that Bush and Roh have accomplished together to keep the U.S.-ROK alliance strong at a time of dramatic change in both countries’ politics, threat perception and strategic cultures. The list includes a free trade agreement unprecedented in Asia, the dispatch of South Korean troops to Iraq and the relocation of U.S. forces. These accomplishments were not achieved without a good deal of public disagreement and tough negotiation. But none were negotiated publicly by the two leaders the way the peace treaty issue was in Australia last week. One can only hope that exchange at APEC spurs officials in both governments to work harder to find a common approach, rather than hardening differences in ways that only North Korea would appreciate.
*The writer is a former senior director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.
by Michael Green