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WASHINGTON — The curtain has come down on the first act of the Bush administration’s Asia policy, and there are far more questions than answers about U.S. policy after President Kim Dae Jung’s visit to Washington. The media feasted on the mixed messages from a skeptical President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell and the gaps between Bush’s and Kim’s perspectives on North Korea. I suspect the widely reported policy differences may in the end be more questions of tactics and emphasis than of strategy and goals.

Kim’s visit was a useful, if somewhat painful, exercise for both sides, part of a “search for consensus” in policy formulation for a government still in formation — and of policy coordination among allies. For an administration that has yet to put its Asia team in place, it was not reasonable to expect a fully considered policy.

A careful look at what was actually said between the two leaders reveals more common ground than the media coverage would suggest. First, Bush is sincere and serious about wanting to bolster ties to U.S. allies, as he said repeatedly in their joint press conference and statement. Bush opened the conference with praise for Kim’s “leadership in terms of reaching out to the North Koreans,” adding that Kim’s “vision of peace” is “a goal we share.”

Perhaps the most revealing point Bush made was his comment that “I do have some skepticism about the leader of North Korea,” adding “but that’s not going to preclude us from trying to achieve the common objective.” But even Kim, in his speech before the American Enterprise Institute, mentioned that changes in North Korea may be “merely temporary or tactical.”

Thus, for all the media sensationalism it is clear that the Bush administration supports Seoul’s Sunshine Policy. Washington and Seoul put different emphasis on the two inseparable goals shared by both nations: threat reduction and North-South reconciliation. Where the debate begins in Washington is the same place it begins in Seoul: how to implement the Sunshine Policy and how to apply reciprocity. In this regard, it is important to keep in mind that the fundamental problem lies not in Seoul or Washington, but in Pyongyang.

Few dispute that changes are occurring in North Korea and in its dealings with the world. The question is how much change Pyongyang is willing to permit, given its fears that openness will undermine political stability. Can any package of incentives persuade North Korea that its least bad choice is to open and reform its economy? Will any mix of aid and assurances lead the North to abandon its “military first” policy and agree to verifiable arms reductions? When China began its economic reforms, the military was the last of the Four Modernizations, not first. Beijing understood that without a modern economy and technological base, no serious military can be sustained. Does Pyongyang?

Much has been made of the Bush administration’s reluctance to rush back to the table and reach a missile deal that the Clinton administration failed to conclude. Powell has repeated that there are “promising elements” on the table that the administration will look at as it forges its new policy. Some argue that there is a “window of opportunity” that will soon shut if it is not seized. This is nonsense. The North Koreans waited 15 months before responding to the Perry initiative. They had no sense of urgency, and that is why President Bill Clinton ran out of time. If there is a deal now, it will be there later when Bush finishes his policy review.

Moreover, close inspection of what was left on the negotiating table reveals that there was considerable distance to go before a credible missile deal could be reached. North Korea’s Kim Jong Il was willing to agree to end the export of all missiles and missile technology, and to stop all testing, development and deployment of medium (Nodong) and long-range missiles (Taepodong 1 and 2). But he only agreed to freeze — not dismantle — nearly 100 Nodong missiles (already deployed and able to reach Japan) and his Taepodong program. Nor was any agreement on the intrusive verification regime needed to make a missile deal credible. In short, while the Bush administration would be irresponsible not to actively explore the missile deal further, it is an open question whether Pyongyang is really prepared to sell its missiles or merely “rent” them with a freeze.

There is also a healthy inclination in Washington — and some interest in Seoul — to begin focusing on the core threat from conventional forces. A conventional forces reduction deal — perhaps modeled after the CFE accord in Europe at the end of the Cold War — is key to real peace: It would eliminate the threat of surprise attack. This would need to be a comprehensive approach, fashioning a road map for threat reduction and almost certainly entail a grand bargain with North Korea, where the United States, South Korea and Japan would offer a large package of economic incentives and security assurances in exchange for verifiable threat reduction. The Nunn-Lugar Russian denuclearization program offers a precedent.

There are other issues where Washington and Seoul will have to synchronize divergent views. One concerns the Agreed Framework. Bush officials are indicating an interest in revising the nuclear deal to substitute coal-fired thermal plants for at least one light-water reactor. Moreover, it is argued (properly) that if Seoul provides free electricity to North Korea, it undermines the nuclear deal: Why would the North allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify its nuclear history if they already have the electricity the LWRs would provide?

Another point of concern is the notion of a “peace declaration” at the next North-South summit and moves toward a new “peace regime.” Any peace regime should be linked not just to symbolic acts or rhetoric about tension reduction, but to concrete moves to reduce the threat. President Kim seemed to see the importance of connecting peace and security.

The next act should be a high-level consultation — before the next North-South summit — where the U.S. and South Korea, and then also Japan, forge a collective strategy for managing change on the Korean Peninsula. Every new administration has an initial period during which it seeks to find the balance between continuity and change as it defines its policies. If experience is the best teacher, the Bush-Kim summit will help shape U.S.-Korea policy.

But at the end of the day North Korea will likely determine the path pursued by both Washington and Seoul. The policy challenge is to create a situation that makes it as inviting as possible for Pyongyang to make the right choices.

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