South Korean President Kim Dae Jung is in Washington this week to coordinate his views with those of U.S. President George W. Bush. There is concern in Seoul that the new administration is not as firmly behind Mr. Kim as was President Bill Clinton. Initial reports from their meetings suggest the fears are correct: Mr. Bush is more skeptical of North Korean intentions than his predecessor was. Given the North’s record, that seems fair. But skepticism must not give way to hostility. Treating Pyongyang like an enemy will ensure that it becomes one. Just as important, Washington and Seoul must work together, coordinating policies so that there is no daylight between their positions.
Mr. Bush made no secret of his concern about U.S. policy, and that of South Korea, toward North Korea during the U.S. presidential campaign. Mr. Kim adopted his Sunshine Policy in an attempt to break the stalemate in relations between the two Koreas. While it has produced some spectacular results, most notably the historic summit last year between him and his North Korean counterpart Mr. Kim Jong Il, the policy is controversial. It has come under attack by growing numbers of South Koreans who feel that their president has given too much to the North and received too little in return. With a presidential election scheduled for next year, opposition can be expected to intensify. That is why the U.S. position is critical.
Washington has taken the lead in negotiations with Pyongyang over its missile development and suspected nuclear-weapons programs. The United States walks a fine line: It does not want the North to deal with Washington at Seoul’s expense, but neither does it want Seoul to strike a deal that is, from the U.S. perspective, too soft.
After their meeting, Mr. Bush expressed support for Mr. Kim’s efforts to reduce tensions, but also voiced worries about verifying any agreement with the North. The characterization of their exchanges as “frank and honest,” which is the diplomatic equivalent of disagreements, foreshadows difficulties in getting the two governments to see eye to eye when it comes to Pyongyang.
The problem is that the world looks very different from Seoul and Washington. Having lived for decades under the threat of North Korean artillery and invasion, Seoul is less concerned than Washington about Pyongyang’s missile program. Similarly, South Korea’s chief objective is movement toward unification, and that means dealing with whatever government facilitates that goal. In practical terms, Mr. Kim has an incentive to accommodate Beijing and Moscow if they have influence in Pyongyang.
His willingness to deal with them has produced strains in Seoul’s relations with Washington over the issue of national missile defense. Mr. Bush wants to pursue that controversial program over stiff opposition from Russia and China.
Last week, Mr. Kim caused a stir by agreeing with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Antiballistic Missile Treaty was “the cornerstone of strategic stability.” Mr. Kim has since backpedaled. In Washington, he gave tacit support to NMD plans by agreeing with Mr. Bush that threats posed by missiles and weapons of mass destruction require a new approach.
Mr. Kim is not the only one sending mixed signals. It would be hard to paint Mr. Bush as a hardliner as he applauded the South Korean president’s leadership and vision and acknowledged that Mr. Kim was a realist. And as the U.S. president indicated that a tougher approach toward the North may be in the works, Secretary of State Colin Powell noted that the new administration would pick up where its predecessor left off and examine “promising elements left on the table.”
A little confusion may not be a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with holding out the prospect of good relations and demanding verification of any deals and reciprocity in relations between the two Koreas. North Korea’s diplomatic progress with the U.S. and other nations must be matched by its relations with South Korea. The resumption of high-level talks between the two Koreas next week is welcome.
But if there is confusion, it should only be in Pyongyang. It is imperative that Washington and Seoul understand and trust each other when dealing with North Korea. Regular consultation and coordination is a must. And it is equally important that Tokyo be included in that process. Japan has a critical role to play as North Korea rejoins the international community; sadly, Japanese diplomacy has lagged behind that of the U.S. and South Korea. That is regrettable, but it can be fixed. Trilateral coordination is the key.
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