SEOUL — Some journalists profess to know more than they ought to. While President Bill Clinton insists a decision regarding a possible visit to North Korea has not been taken, some media have already published details of the president’s itinerary. According to one report, Clinton’s two-day visit to Pyongyang will begin Nov. 12 — just ahead of the APEC summit in Brunei. The source of this information is an “unidentified South Korean government official.” Similar, unspecified information has been published in other media.
During one recent encounter with a senior diplomat of an important Western nation, I heard a rather convincing argument in support of the view that the presidential visit to Pyongyang is, for all practical purposes, a decided matter. Clinton is in the final stages of his term, argued the diplomat, and a visit to the former arch-enemy would undoubtedly add to his historic legacy. The North Korean dictator, too, would rather see Clinton come today than tomorrow, as he must worry that a possible Republican successor would be much less tolerant in dealing with his regime.
And last, the South Koreans: President Kim Dae Jung has made no secret that he wants the U.S. president to visit the North. One newspaper even wrote that Kim “urged” Clinton to travel to Pyongyang. Since all three major players favor the presidential visit, it is a foregone conclusion that it will materialize, the diplomat argued quite convincingly.
Just a few weeks ago, a visit by Clinton to North Korea would have been all but unthinkable. But just a few weeks on the Korean Peninsula have changed the world. Considering the political importance and implications of a presidential visit, the public debate over whether he should go is crucial. Thanks to the Internet, editorial opinions on this matter in the United States can be followed easily even from a distance.
Evidently, voices that say any high-level contact with the North Korean communists should be avoided are dying out. From what I gather, the issue is not whether Washington should engage North Korea, but whether the timing and the conditions are ripe for a visit by the chief executive.
After a half year of encounters and engagements between North Korean leaders and their Western counterparts, a meeting just for the sake of a meeting, without ascertained results, is not considered enough. The situation on the Korean Peninsula has moved beyond the point of such symbolism. By visiting Pyongyang, Clinton would condone and legitimize the North Korean rulers in an unprecedented way, opening the door not only to more foreign aid, but also to more commercial interaction and investment in North Korea.
What are the North Koreans willing to pay in return for this big present? Are they ready to curb their missile program in exchange for U.S. promises to help resurrect their defunct economy? These are the central questions, to which answers are not possible at this moment. Much will depend on the outcome of the bilateral missile-talks set to take place.
It has, however, become apparent that Washington is — for the time being — turning a blind eye to issues considered a high priority in the past. According to a report, Clinton administration officials said the human-rights situation in North Korea could be dealt with in a better manner once relations with Pyongyang have reached a more mature stage. In short, a window of opportunity has opened, and Washington is in a hurry not to lose what is considered by many a historical chance.
Regarding hasty policy decisions vis-a-vis the North Korean regime, the U.S. finds itself in good company. I am referring to the European countries that just a few days ago assembled with their East Asian partners in Seoul for the third ASEM summit. Arguably the most important result of that meeting was the announcement by some European governments that they would establish diplomatic relations with Pyongyang soon. Among these nations were two European powerhouses: Germany and Britain.
Their unilateral announcements were made without prior North Korean assurances regarding matters that until recently had been considered vital in European capitals, namely human rights and weapons proliferation. One European diplomat tried to explain this change of mind with a “North Korea euphoria” that has taken grip of some European governments.
Not all countries have jumped onto the bandwagon, though: French President Jacques Chirac has made it clear that Paris continues to attach conditions regarding the normalization of relations with North Korea, singling out concerns over weapons proliferation and human rights.
One analyst explained this position with the traditional desire of French diplomacy to do things differently than the U.S. I would add that unlike other European countries, human-rights activists with an interest in North Korea are well organized in France, and their campaign against unconditional engagement with what they term “the most extraordinary totalitarian dictatorship on the planet” has had some impact on the government.
Taken together these facts may well explain France’s lack of enthusiasm in dealing with North Korea. But then, maybe the reason for Chirac’s tardiness and Clinton’s haste is much more banal: In contrast to his American colleague, the Frenchman is not leaving office in a few weeks.
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