As U.S. President Bill Clinton was getting ready to head for Asia for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting in Brunei, the White House confirmed that he would not be visiting North Korea on this trip after all, since the recent U.S.-North Korean missile talks in Kuala Lumpur, while “detailed, constructive, and very substantive,” still left “significant issues . . . to be explored and resolved.” The decision to postpone the trip is the right one, even if it has been made for the wrong reason.

This is not to imply that the U.S. effort to eliminate North Korea’s potential missile threat is not important; it is. But there are more significant issues to be resolved before a presidential trip is warranted. An assessment of the impact such a visit would have on North-South reconciliation efforts is also needed. Without greater progress in intra-Korean relations and some genuine reciprocity toward Seoul on the part of Pyongyang, a U.S. presidential visit could easily prove counterproductive to U.S.-South Korean efforts to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula. It could also put undue pressure on Tokyo to rush its own normalization process with Pyongyang. This is why suggestions that Clinton may still try to squeeze a trip in before Jan. 20 are disturbing.

North Korea’s international coming out has proceeded at a remarkable pace since the historic June 2000 summit meeting in Pyongyang between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Il. Most of the progress, as it should be, has been in North-South relations, including the symbolically significant meeting between both sides’ defense ministers in South Korea in September although there has been welcome progress in traditionally tense U.S.-North Korean relations as well.

I supported the overall intent of Albright’s late October trip to Pyongyang, although hasty preparation had some inexcusable results — she was apparently duped into attending a massive celebration of the 55th Anniversary of the Korean Worker’s Party. Nonetheless, Albright reportedly spelled out directly to Kim the steps his regime needs to take to remove itself from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and to start the process of normalization of relations with the U.S. There is just no substitute for this type of face-to-face diplomacy.

But, as U.S. diplomatic efforts proceed, Washington needs to keep its eye on the ultimate objective — peace and stability on the peninsula — which will best be achieved by peaceful coexistence between North and South today and peaceful reunification over time. This is a process in which Seoul must continue to be, and to be perceived by Pyongyang as being, in the driver’s seat.

There are already signs that the all-important North-South process is slowing, especially as the South starts looking beyond symbolism for some substantive signals of North Korean sincerity. There is growing concern in Seoul that too much progress too soon on U.S.-North Korean relations will cause the more important South-North process to be sidetracked. At best, there are concerns that Pyongyang cannot focus sufficient diplomatic attention simultaneously on Seoul and Washington and that its current preoccupation with the U.S. will cause Kim Dae Jung’s outreach policies to suffer accordingly. Less charitable analysts would argue that it has been Pyongyang’s intention all along to cut a deal with Washington and that its overtures toward Seoul were merely a means of getting Washington’s attention.

Pyongyang’s continued insistence on dealing almost exclusively with Washington on security-related issues underlines this point. Even the much-heralded North-South Defense Ministers’ meeting was really more about economics than security. All North Korean Defense Minister Kim Il Chol was willing to discuss was an opening of a rail and road economic corridor through the demilitarized zone. Attempts by South Korean Defense Minister Cho Seong Tae to discuss other security topics, such as a military hotline (originally a Pyongyang proposal) or other military confidence-building measures, were soundly rebuffed.

The key word in Seoul today is reciprocity. The belief is growing that rapprochement has been a one-way street. One case in point was the Seoul government’s unilateral release of imprisoned North Korean spies and sympathizers in early September. It was expected that this gesture would be reciprocated; to date, it has not. More important, the North seems to be dragging its feet on the divided families exchange program and on CBM discussions.

Significantly, while Kim Jong Il has agreed in principle to visit the South, no date has been set. Kim reportedly commented recently that there was no need for him to conduct foreign visits since everyone is eager to come to see him. So far, he is right. Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly followed in Kim Dae Jung’s footsteps, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has been falling over himself to get a similar invitation to Pyongyang. (Several senior Chinese officials have also made the trip, but at least they were preceded by the Dear Leader’s trip to Beijing last May.)

There is no reason for Clinton to rush to join this parade, at least not before there is some significant progress both in U.S.-North Korean and North-South relations. Simply put, no U.S. president should visit Pyongyang until Kim Jong Il has lived up to his agreement to visit Seoul. Further preconditions should include substantive North-South dialogue on military confidence-building measures and an acknowledgment, long overdue, that the primary signatory to any peninsular peace agreement should be Seoul (and not Washington, as Pyongyang continues to insist).

It would make more sense for the first visit between North Korea’s supreme leader and any U.S. president — be it Clinton or his successor — to take place in a more neutral setting, such as some future APEC or United Nations meeting.

Clinton will be conducting a historic visit to Vietnam following the APEC meeting. This trip is completely appropriate, given Hanoi’s years of positive interaction within ASEAN and significant progress in U.S.-Vietnamese relations, including the recent signing of a bilateral trade agreement that demonstrates Hanoi’s commitment to modest economic liberalization. However, U.S. North Korean relations have a long way to go before they reach this stage, and one essential step is meaningful parallel progress in the North’s relations with South Korea as well. One of the Clinton administration’s real successes has been its steadfastness in insisting that Pyongyang deal directly with Seoul; a hasty or premature presidential visit to North Korea risks undermining this accomplishment.

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