[Overseas view]Presidential distractionsPresident Bush has told a number of people that he is really looking forward to welcoming President Lee Myung-bak to the U.S. presidential retreat at Camp David. There is a general expectation that the Lee-Bush relationship will be much more comfortable than the relationship with President Roh for both sides, even though the former Korean president and Bush accomplished a great deal bilaterally.
But while Bush will give Lee a warm reception, the reality is that Washington will be distracted. The headlines will not be about U.S.-South Korea, but instead about the U.S. presidential race and the impact of Iraq, the economy and the Clinton-Obama fight for the Democratic nomination.
Lee will find the politics of North Korea policy in Washington especially confusing. It is well known that the Bush administration changed course in early 2007 and decided to utilize pressure against North Korea in the wake of the October 2006 nuclear test in order to test Pyongyang’s willingness to re-initiate steps towards denuclearization. The Feb. 13, 2007 six-party agreement was designed to slow the UN Security Council and Banco Delta Asia sanctions on North Korea and provide inducements such as heavy fuel oil and further sanctions-relief in exchange for Pyongyang’s commitment to disable the Yongbyon facility and provide a full and complete declaration.
Conventional wisdom in Washington these days is that Pyongyang has moved significantly towards disabling Yongbyon, but appears to have little interest in providing a full and complete declaration. Evidence of North Korean links to Syria’s proliferation activities and traces of highly enriched uranium found on aluminum tubes turned over to the U.S. by North Korea raise the stakes further.
Lee will find that Bush insists on receiving a full and complete declaration that includes an account of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program and proliferation activities with countries like Syria. But at the State Department, there will be much more willingness to compromise on the definition of “full and complete” in order to keep the process going.
Ironically, the diplomats have support for their position from the Democratic presidential candidates. Neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton has any interest in acknowledging that North Korea is failing to honor its commitments. The reason is simple: The Democratic candidates have a stake in showing that engagement with dangerous regimes works, since Obama has promised to meet Kim Jong-il without preconditions, while Clinton has criticized President Bush for not engaging in bilateral negotiations with North Korea sooner.
Meanwhile, Republican candidate John McCain will have more incentive to point out that the strategy of inducements and dialogue without pressure will result only in further North Korean intransigence and reveals the naïveté of the Democratic candidates’ positions on foreign affairs.
The unclear issue is whether President Bush will eventually acknowledge the failure of the talks — which helps McCain, but forces a new strategy on North Korea when the presidency is in its closing months — or whether he lets the diplomatic process struggle along, which helps the Democrats’ case and keeps North Korea policy from exploding at a time when the administration is trying to focus on consolidating gains made in Iraq.
The situation around the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement is also getting confused by the strange vortex of presidential election year politics.
Foreign affairs advisers to Clinton, Obama and McCain almost unanimously agree (in private) that the FTA is in the strategic and economic interests of the United States. But in their fight to win critical parts of economically distressed swing states like Michigan and Ohio, the two Democratic candidates are trying to appear protectionist. Obama and Clinton now oppose Nafta, Korus and the U.S.-Columbia free trade agreement. That has made it extremely difficult for supporters of free trade to build momentum in Congress, since Democratic members of the House do not want to fall out of step with their party’s presidential nominee.
With politicians running scared because of the presidential candidates’ positions, nobody is taking the initiative to move forward the Colombia FTA or the Korus FTA.
A clear statement from Lee on his strategy towards the North will help galvanize the administration on North Korea. If he also brings bold new initiatives to jumpstart the FTA and if he asks directly for President Bush, the cabinet and the leadership in Congress to push for passage of this important agreement, then he can have a real impact.
*The writer is a former senior director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.
by Michael Green