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  May 18,  

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Bush has got it wrong on the Koreas

Last week, we had occasion to point to serious flaws in the new US Bush administration's China policy - or rather the apparent lack of any coherent longer-term policy altogether. The same goes for W's and his team's approach to the Koreas, though in this case NOT to have a policy at least for the time being seems to BE the policy.

When South Korean President Kim Dae-jung visited Washington, DC, in early March, Bush uttered some pleasantries about Kim's peace efforts and congratulated him on winning the Nobel Prize, but otherwise rebuffed and embarrassed him saying the US wouldn't talk to North Korea about anything until a policy review had been completed. When a new administration takes over, it is natural for it to review its predecessor's policy precepts. There is little point in making a point of it. But to tell a visiting head of state of a major and longstanding ally that, well, sorry, there's a review going on and why don't you come back later, is not only uncalled for and rude, but, of course, undermines his policy efforts. Had the review been that urgent or critical, that could have been conveyed through diplomatic channels along with a recommendation that a later visit might be more fruitful.

So, why did George W do what he did and in the process not only embarrass Kim but also his own secretary of state who had in advance signaled US policy continuity and said nothing of a review? There are several possible answers to this. In combination, they may add up to an explanation.

Bush says he prefers straight talk to beating around the bush. Like Ronald Reagan, he'd rather call an "Evil Empire" or a communist dictatorship by such names than others. Also like Reagan, who said, "Trust, but verify," Bush wants to see verifiability of any agreement with North Korea. Some cynics (or are they?) think that having a genuine rogue state with long-range ballistic missiles around is the compelling justification Bush wants for his missile defense plans. Most broadly, Bush appears unconvinced that Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine" policy will bring about substantial change in North Korea and fears that it might merely strengthen the North's regime, including its military.

There is some validity in most of those points. But we take serious exception to the notion that there is something basically wrong with the "Sunshine" policy and to the treatment that was dished out to Kim Dae-jung in Washington. What's the alternative to South-North rapprochement? The danger to peace arises from an isolated and unpredictable North Korea, not from one that's in the process of opening up - even if that means that it might temporarily stabilize its economy; but mind you, stabilize it at close to starvation levels.

And we also believe that Korean peace and unification is a matter in which the Koreans must play the lead role. We won't try to predict what exactly comes out of the Bush policy review. But undoubtedly it will be a "tougher" position on the North than Bill Clinton's. Fair enough. But it shouldn't impose boundary conditions on the North-South peace and unification process that by fiat reduces Seoul's position to that of junior partner of the United States, which sets the strategic framework.

The EU on Monday decided on extending diplomatic relations with North Korea. When an EU delegation met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il prior to that, he extended the North's moratorium on missile tests till 2003. But on Thursday Kim (North) said he would cancel the 1994 agreement on suspension of the North's nuclear program if no early progress was made with the construction of promised nuclear power reactors.

When the US reviews its policy with South Korea and Japan in Hawaii later this month, a firm commitment to the "Sunshine" policy should be the priority outcome. Verification of any Pyongyang commitment on missile development can be part of the way forward. So can be the possibility of more rapidly building some conventional power stations rather than nuclear ones. But the notion (put forward by the Heritage Foundation, a think tank influential in Bush circles) that North Korean troop reductions along the DMZ are the top priority and condition for going forward is a sure fire way to arrest whatever progress has been made over the past several years.

Much as with respect to China, George W Bush should talk to his father and let the elder Bush give him some advice on Korea policy based on his conduct of German unification policies a decade ago.

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