SEOUL — On the surface, U.S.-South Korean relations have seldom seemed better. Last fall’s contentious issues — negotiations over revisions to the Status of Forces Agreement and over South Korean missile-development plans — were settled amicably. The new U.S. administration has firmly endorsed the alliance. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung is expected to be the first Asian leader to visit President George W. Bush in Washington, on March 7. (Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was invited to come a few days earlier but apparently can’t make the trip.) In addition, the administration has pledged its support for Kim’s North-South reconciliation effort and promised to continue its own dialogue with Pyongyang.
But, if things are going so well, why does everyone in Seoul seem so nervous? The answer comes down to one word: uncertainty. Seoul is uncertain about Washington’s true intentions regarding rapprochement with North Korea; it is uncertain about North Korean intentions and Pyongyang’s willingness to give as well as to take; and it is far from certain whether Kim can sustain (some would say achieve) domestic political support for his North Korea policy. There is also uncertainly as to when and if North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will come to the South and even greater uncertainty over Seoul’s ability to successfully manage the visit.
I’m told that Seoul’s primary goal for the Kim Dae Jung-Bush summit is a simple one: to alleviate anxiety. Kim will seek Bush’s personal, unqualified endorsement for the South’s Sunshine Policy of reconciliation and engagement with North Korea. While there will be a strong reaffirmation of America’s defense commitment to South Korea and the need for continued military deterrence, the world’s newest Nobel Peace laureate will also want Bush to wave some olive branches in Pyongyang’s direction. Some acknowledgment of North Korea’s bold steps toward reconciliation and reform will be sought, and should be forthcoming, albeit with the necessary qualifiers.
One such qualifier that continues to make Seoul nervous is repeated reference to the need for North Korean reciprocity, which is being translated as “strict reciprocity” in Seoul. It would ease Seoul’s concerns if administration officials spoke of asymmetrical or progressive reciprocity instead, to acknowledge that the U.S. and South Korea have more room for maneuver than does Pyongyang.
On the other hand, it would not hurt Kim, while praising progress to date, to lay out more clearly and publicly the specific steps he would like North Korea to take to demonstrate its commitment to the reconciliation process. Kim should also clearly lay out — and Bush should then endorse — his specific objectives for Kim Jong Il’s long-awaited visit to the South. This will put pressure on the North to move beyond symbolism and will help remove anxiety both in the U.S. and in South Korea about the meeting.
Kim Jong Il has bragged to visitors that he watches South Korean television and reads the South’s newspapers. He must therefore be fully aware of growing opposition to the Sunshine Policy, not because anyone thinks that engaging the North is bad, but because the process is increasingly being described as a one-way street. For example, last fall President Kim unilaterally released a large group of North Korean spies and prisoners of conscience. The North has yet to reciprocate, even though such a move would cost it little or nothing.
North Korea also needs to signal its willingness to enter into serious security discussions with the South aimed at developing military confidence-building measures. To date, Pyongyang has refused even to acknowledge Seoul as a legitimate dialogue partner on security issues, insisting that such talks be with Washington instead. At a minimum, Pyongyang should signal its willingness, without preconditions, to accept Kim Dae Jung’s call for a resumption of Four-Party Talks (involving the U.S. and China and the two Koreas). This would have the added benefit of compelling the Bush administration to focus on North Korea issues in a positive way. (The North’s seemingly preferred way of getting Washington’s attention — by creating a crisis — is likely to have far less positive results.)
The greatest threat to the Sunshine Policy comes not from Washington or Pyongyang, however, but from Seoul. Kim Dae Jung has failed to develop a bipartisan consensus for his policy approach toward the North and even U.S.-South Korean relations are being drawn into partisan politics.
Of greatest concern is the demand by some South Korean opposition leaders, led by former President Kim Young Sam, that Kim Jong Il issue an apology for the North’s 1950 invasion and admit guilt for a variety of past sins before he is allowed to come to Seoul. Their goal appears not so much aimed at aborting the visit as ensuring that Kim Dae Jung gains little domestic credit for this significant accomplishment. When pressed, opposition leaders will acknowledge that any future South Korean leader would have little option other than to continue Kim’s outreach program. But scant effort has been made by either side to craft a bipartisan approach that would put the peace process first.
This is where Kim needs to wave a few olive branches of his own. As one frustrated Korean put it, “President Kim has spent more time consulting with the Americans and Japanese on his North Korea policy than he has with the Korean people themselves.” To alleviate anxiety, Kim needs to exert as much effort mending fences at home as he does building bridges abroad, since international support for his policies will all be for naught if domestic consensus cannot be achieved.
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