[Viewpoint]Getting in sync on the North

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[Viewpoint]Getting in sync on the North

The political views of the new United States envoy to North Korea seem to be in perfect harmony not so much with the current South Korean government, but with the previous two administrations that crafted and championed the former Sunshine Policy.

This presents a challenge for President Lee Myung-bak. Upon taking office one year ago this week, Lee cast aside the Sunshine Policy and its emphasis on economic aid and cooperation. While President Lee and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a strong public display of solidarity on Friday to dismiss North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric and a threatened missile test, the Republic of Korea and the United States are not yet on the same page when it comes to dealing with North Korea.

President Lee has been trying to put pressure on North Korea - and the hard line taken by the Lee government during 2008 was far more confrontational than even the Bush administration during its final year.

At the same time as the Bush administration resumed food aid to North Korea last spring, the Lee government withheld its rice and fertilizer shipments. While the United States removed North Korea from its list of terrorism sponsoring states, several agreements and cooperative ventures between the two Koreas unraveled. Cross-border tourism has stopped, the future of the Kaesong Industrial Complex has been questioned, and North Korea has threatened military action along a disputed sea border with a history of clashes.

Now along comes Stephen Bosworth, the new envoy to Pyongyang. A former ambassador to Seoul during Bill Clinton’s administration who also worked on the 1994 agreement that tried to redirect North Korea’s nuclear capacity, Bosworth will replace Christopher Hill as head of the United States delegation to the six-party talks.

Bosworth has stated that he is not interested in trying to hasten the demise of the North Korean regime. Instead, Bosworth wants to reach an agreement for North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons program in exchange for massive infusions of economic aid, energy assistance and investment aimed at opening up the North’s economy into East Asia and the global market.

As Bosworth argued last year in a commentary published in Newsweek: “Such a deal, which would permit North Korea to continue its internal repressive policies, would be no easy sell politically in the United States. But it would, at a minimum, reduce the threat of further proliferation and improve the chances of getting North Korea to give up its plutonium and weapons. There are no guarantees, but this approach would be far better than waiting around and hoping North Korea will collapse.”

This is consistent with the approach toward the North outlined by Secretary Clinton this month in a speech before the Asia Society in New York. United States policy toward North Korea now seems to have four key elements: (1) a verifiable end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and, once this is reached, (2) the signing of a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, (3) opening up a “normalized” state of relations between the United States and North Korea, and (4) providing economic and humanitarian aid.

This approach might well be too kind to the North Korean dictatorship, and the details of Clinton’s policy objectives have yet to be spelled out more clearly. Especially problematic is the goal of denuclearization - and whether this would allow North Korea to maintain its nuclear power capacity even if it really does give up its nuclear weapons program. While Bosworth, who recently visited Pyongyang, has said that North Korea appears ready to cooperate again, many observers of the six-party talks are skeptical.

The immediate question for the Republic of Korea, though, is whether the Lee Myung-bak government can work with the United States and moderate its stand on North Korea without losing face.

President Lee is in a tricky position. For the past year, Lee has rejected the Sunshine Policy as a series of misguided giveaways. Now, however, Lee has to do business with Barack Obama’s new administration, which is advocating essentially a new, internationally sponsored round of the Sunshine Policy.

For most of this decade, the dominant players in Seoul and Washington have been remarkably out of sync with each other.

The Bush administration balked at the Sunshine Policy of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. And given the abrupt policy reversal under Lee Myung-bak, South Korea itself has sent strikingly different messages to the North.

Can the Lee and Obama governments truly get their heads together on North Korea? And can Seoul come up with a consistent stance on Pyongyang that will influence the United States? In the past, Lee has insisted that any cooperation with the North must hinge upon a measure of “reciprocity.” At this juncture, the Lee government ought to consider how to redeploy this essential principle in more constructive directions than before.

Reversing the recent slide in relations between the two Koreas depends on nothing less.


The writer is an associate professor of political science at Yonsei University.

by Hans Schattle

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