WASHINGTON - It's the great unspoken issue of the US presidential campaign: the
North Korean nuclear crisis, the six-party agreement and standoff in which the
North has failed to come up with a list of all it's got in its nuclear
inventory, much less to shut everything down.
President George W Bush said not a word about Korea, North or South, in his
State of the Union address on January 28. No one in any of the televised
debates has asked any of the candidates for the Republican or Democratic
presidential nominations about
North Korea. None of the hundreds of reporters covering all the candidates has
raised a question about North Korea - or at least reported on the response.
As the race to succeed Bush narrows down, however, behind-the-scenes
speculation mounts in Washington over what each of them might do - John McCain,
the Republican, or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, the Democrats.
The question is watched most anxiously by Korean diplomats and political
figures as the conservative Lee Myung-bak awaits inauguration on February 25 as
president of South Korea. Lee, promising to bargain hard in response to North
Korean requests for rice and fertilizer, will fly to Washington after South
Korea's National Assembly elections on April 9. He hopes to build up a measure
of rapport with Bush after nearly a decade of strained relations between Bush
and the past two occupants of the Blue House in Seoul, outgoing President Roh
Moo-hyun and Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, whose Sunshine policy of
reconciliation transformed the nature of inter-Korean relations.
Although no one in Lee's camp is saying so, clearly McCain offers the best hope
for going along happily with a turn to the right in South Korea's policy toward
In fact, as analysts point out, it's not quite accurate to say the word "Korea"
has yet to break into the miasma of camp rhetoric. McCain did, on February 4,
take the trouble to include South Korea in a short list of countries where the
US has had troops "for many, many years".
The point he was making was that he believed the US would have to make a deal
with Iraq for US troops to stay - as they have elsewhere around the world since
World War II - a view that differs entirely from calls to Obama and Clinton to
pull them out of Iraq. The implication is that McCain would oppose any moves to
reduce the number of US troops in South Korea from approximately 25,000, down
from 37,500 five years ago, and would support the plan to view them as part of
a defense system ready for deployment elsewhere in the region.
McCain's views on North Korea appear almost as tough as his outlook on Iraq, at
least to judge from an article in the American journal Foreign Affairs. "It
is," he wrote, "unclear today whether North Korea is truly committed to
verifiable denuclearization and a full accounting of all nuclear materials and
facilities, two steps that are necessary before any lasting diplomatic
agreement can be reached."
Those words may not appear extreme, but in the next sentence he held out what
might appear as demands that North Korea is not likely to fulfill. "Future
talks," he said, "must take into account North Korea's ballistic missile
programs, its abduction of Japanese citizens, and its support for terrorism and
If McCain's outlook appears to mesh with president-elect Lee Myung-bak's
insistence on verification and reciprocity as prerequisites for aid, they are
clearly at variance with the conciliatory tone of both Clinton and Obama.
Clinton, very much in passing, excoriated the Bush administration for its tough
line in the early years in which Bush, hosting Kim Dae-jung after his
inauguration to his first term, expressed "skepticism" about dealings with
North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il. Coming nearly a year after Kim Dae-jung flew
to Pyongyang for the first North-South summit, Bush's remarks were widely
interpreted as a rebuff of the Sunshine policy that Kim had so carefully
"North Korea responded to the Bush administration's effort to isolate it by
accelerating its nuclear program, conducting a nuclear test, and building more
nuclear weapons," Clinton wrote in Foreign Affairs. "Only since the State
Department returned to diplomacy have we been able, belatedly, to make
Obama if anything appears more of a fan of Sunshine than Clinton. Although he
has said very little on the nuclear issue, he has made negotiations on all
levels a centerpiece of a drive to rebuild alliances and partnerships. "Needed
reform of these alliances and institutions will not come by bullying other
countries to ratify changes we hatch in isolation," he wrote in Foreign
Affairs. "In Asia, we belittled South Korean efforts to improve relations with
If either Obama or Clinton wins, a key player in foreign policy may well be the
New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson, who dropped out as a rival for the
Democratic nomination but presumably would love to be on the ticket as vice
presidential candidate. Alternatively, Richardson, who served as ambassador to
the United Nations and energy secretary under the first Bill Clinton
administration, would be delighted with an appointment as secretary of state -
a real possibility. A Foreign Affairs piece by Richardson may be just as
significant as those of the three leading candidates, especially considering he
has visited North Korea a number of times, has criticized the hard line of the
Bush administration and has been a staunch advocate of reconciliation.
"Fighting nuclear trafficking will require better human intelligence and better
international intelligence and law enforcement coordination," he wrote. "And it
will require tough and persistent US diplomacy to unite the world, including
China and Russia, behind efforts to contain the nuclear ambitions of Iran and
North Korea, even as we provide these nations with incentives and face-saving
ways to permanently renounce nuclear weapons."
The bottom line, as expressed by Richardson in the next sentence: "We should
remember that no nation has ever been forced to renounce nuclear weapons, but
that many nations have been convinced to renounce them." Richardson
specifically cites Libya, but clearly has North Korea in mind.
A Clinton victory, though, might bring another familiar name into the process.
How about Bill Clinton himself? Koreans in the US and in Seoul are already
speculating on the possibility - some say the expectation - that Hillary would
surely want Bill to serve as a roving ambassador. What could be more
appropriate, they ask, than for Bill to go to Pyongyang?
No one forgets that Bill Clinton had considered going in the final weeks of his
presidency before the infamous Florida recount distracted too much attention -
and lofted Bush to the presidency. Nor is it forgotten that Clinton was the
president who promoted the Geneva framework agreement of October 1994 under
which North Korea shut down its reactor at Yongbyon.
A Clinton visit to Pyongyang might happen, it's widely believed, if the US
moves to have North Korea removed from the State Department's list of nations
sponsoring terrorism and then moves to open diplomatic relations with
US nuclear envoy Christopher Hill, testifying this week before the US Senate
foreign relations committee, held out that hope as well as the dream of a peace
treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War if the North would
just submit a "complete and correct" record of its nuclear activities.
The betting, though, is that North Korea, again accusing the US of undermining
the nuclear agreement, will wait to see who wins the US election - and then
determine how inclined is the winner to negotiate more concessions and aid.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.