Staying in the gameI was invited to a social event where U.S. President George W. Bush was present. It was a gathering where Bush met with Republican Party members and senior party officials. At the occasion, Bush spoke frankly about his opinion on North Korea for more than 10 minutes.
There were two key points. First, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is like a badly behaved child. Second, the North’s nuclear development is nothing more than blackmail to win the attention of the United States.
Based on these two assumptions, Bush’s strategy to counter the North’s nuclear aspirations is simple. He believes there is no use for the United States, an adult, to alone attend to the tantrums of an ill-mannered kid, especially because when trouble arises, the United States will alone be held responsible.
Therefore, other adults — South Korea, China, Japan and Russia — must act together to civilize the childish North.
China’s role is particularly important because of its influence on the North. The six-nation talks, chaired by China, stemmed from this train of thought.
When China does not move the way the United States wants, America hints at two things in order to apply pressure. If Beijing continues to ignore Pyongyang’s nuclear development, Washington will have no choice but to consider self-defense measures. Furthermore, it will become difficult for the U.S. to prevent other neighbors from taking similar steps.
According to sources, Bush has explained this logic to Chinese presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao directly, succeeding in getting the two leaders to persuade the North to come to the six-party table.
As we can see from this, the North Korean nuclear issue is nothing more than a pawn in a grand chess game between the United States and China.
In fact, North Korea has always been a secondary issue in U.S. foreign policy. Former President Bill Clinton had planned to visit Pyongyang in 2000 at the end of his term to become the historic figure who declared the normalization of U.S.-North Korea relations.
But in June of that year, Yasser Arafat, then the leader of the Palestinian autonomous government, was engaged in negotiations with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David, at Clinton’s invitation. Arafat told Clinton that if he left for Pyongyang, Palestine’s negotiations with Israel would be terminated immediately. Clinton quickly canceled his plan to visit the North. For Clinton, the Middle East was far more important than the North.
The situation is the same for Bush. These days, he is completely occupied with Middle Eastern issues. Stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan and stopping Iran’s nuclear development are three pending predicaments. These are more than enough to keep his attention focused on the Middle East.
Bush only has eight months to go before his term ends. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who leads Washington’s North Korea policy on behalf of the president, will also likely spend her remaining tenure trying to win an important deal in the Middle East to serve her boss.
Of course, U.S. officials often stress that the North Korean nuclear issue is the top priority for both Bush and Rice. However, observers in Washington agree that the Bush administration is trying to come up with a hasty diplomatic achievement by compromising with North Korea in order to cover up the blunders in the Middle East, because Americans are not overly interested in the North and Pyongyang is willing to negotiate.
Observers forecast that the Bush administration’s nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang will basically come to an end when the North gets rid of its existing plutonium-based programs and the United States removes the country from its list of state sponsors of terror.
But they say it is unlikely that North Korea will dismantle all its nuclear arms and normalize its relations with the United States before Bush’s term ends.
As we can see, South Korea’s interests are inevitably different from those of the Bush administration at the end of its term. South Korea must cooperate with Bush’s North Korea policy, but also prepare a strategy to defend itself from a nuclear-armed North Korea. Further, it needs to get ready to deal with the new U.S. administration.
Under the principle of zero tolerance of a nuclear-armed North Korea, Seoul needs to keep pressure on the North while engaging it at the same time, in order to keep South Korea’s position in this nuclear game. Seoul must persuade Washington about the positive aspects of inter-Korean dialogue and solidify its position in the nuclear talks. Simply shouting, “We cannot accept the North’s strategy of talking directly with the United States while blocking us,” will never work. Without exerting efforts to secure its position in the talks, the Lee Myung-bak administration will find itself ignored, just like what happened to the Kim Young-sam government.
*The writer is the Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.