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SEOUL — “Sooner or later, the North Koreans will return to the negotiating table,” said South Korea’s former Foreign Minister Lee Joung Binn in an interview on the eve of his resignation. At this moment, political realities on the Korean Peninsula don’t seem to justify his optimism. As the government in Pyongyang cancels one inter-Korean event after another, some analysts wonder whether it’s time to declare the Korean peace process DOA. I don’t share the pessimism, but it is obvious that the process has suffered a major setback.

What has dissipated last year’s political euphoria and raised the suspicion that we’re back to square one and all the old rhetoric and verbal abuse? The Korean media commentators have several explanations. One camp attributes the near-collapse of the Sunshine Policy to the lack of domestic support. According to this argument, the public isn’t behind the strategy of engaging the Northern communists, so the policy has to fail. This line of thought originates among conservatives and is articulated by those who from the very beginning of the Kim Dae Jung administration set out to discredit the conciliatory approach.

But the argument is incorrect. It is simply not true that a majority of the South Korean people do not support the engagement policy. Recent opinion polls show that about four-fifths of the population support engagement with North Korea. This is a remarkable success for the government, considering the unceasing hostile commentary from the biggest and arguably most influential newspapers.

No, public opinion in South Korea has not created the stalemate on the Peninsula. Developments far from here must be considered to explain the impasse — namely the political shift in the United States and President George W. Bush’s rise to power. In the runup to the U.S. presidential election, numerous articles and analyses were published anticipating the possible effects on regional developments in Northeast Asia if the GOP candidate were to win. Judging from recent events, the most pessimistic predictions have come true.

A key date for inter-Korean relations — certainly a date the South Korean president will never forget — was March 7, the day of his summit with Bush. President Kim had hurried to Washington to mobilize diplomatic support for his Sunshine Policy. But he was told by his host that it is too early to expect a definite U.S. position regarding future strategy, and — by the way — the North Koreans could and should not be trusted.

Much has been written about this episode. There is general agreement that Bush’s treatment of his South Korean guest was not one of his stronger performances. An American commentator called the new president’s conduct “one of the most serious diplomatic blunders of the postwar era.” Other U.S. observers spoke of “a diplomatic train wreck,” a “fiasco” and even a “catastrophe.”

It is noteworthy — and typical of Seoul’s defensive diplomacy — that the South Koreans are practicing restraint (at least in public). Kim’s new foreign minister, who has been praised for his relations with the U.S. political right dating back to his term as ambassador in Washington, is even trying to sell the Washington summit as a diplomatic success. This borders on obsequiousness, and is part of an effort to avoid anything that could further irritate the powerful ally across the Pacific.

Meanwhile the Bush administration has said that it needs time to revise its North Korea policy. Revising policies after a change of government is a normal procedure. Given the situation on the Korean Peninsula, however, Bush — and if not him, then at least his advisers — should have been aware that any delay would effectively undermine the political momentum created by the historic Korean summit held last June in Pyongyang.

“Delay is destruction,” notes one U.S. analyst. “Under the guise of a long-term policy review, that may well be what the conservatives in the Bush White House intended.”

Conservatives have moved into the White House, and the new administration has a fundamentally different view of the world from that of its more liberal predecessors. In many parts of the world, governments are bewildered to see the new president behaving like a bull in a china shop.

Regarding the Koreas, an old question has returned: How should democracies deal with undemocratic regimes? Two camps are engaged in an ideological debate, one side endorsing engagement while the other prefers containment.

It seems that the advocates of Cold War thinking have gained the upper hand in the White House. “There are troubling indications that this administration may abandon the path of engagement on the Peninsula,” noted one Democratic senator, warning of the dangers of a shift in U.S. strategy toward North Korea. The senator emphasized that Bush made a mistake when he told Kim Dae Jung that he would not engage North Korea anytime soon.

Conservatives believe that military power combined with a policy aimed at containing and isolating an ideological adversary will lead to the downfall of the regime. Many conservatives have problems with the idea of engaging communists in serious negotiations. They would prefer to see the regime in Pyongyang collapse, with all that is left absorbed by the regime in the South. This would be the final victory in what is perceived to be the not-yet-ended Korean War.

Kim Dae Jung and supporters of the engagement process have a radically different approach. For fundamental reasons, they abhor the idea of a collapse of the North Korean regime and the absorption of the North by the South, as happened when Germany was reunified. “We cannot afford a collapse of North Korea,” a senior aide to the South Korean president said recently. “This is not like West Germany absorbing East Germany. And what happens if the North Korean state falls? A military government takes over, and the prospect of a last desperate war becomes very real.”

It will take time before this thinking is understood, let alone appreciated, in Washington. Unfortunately, Kim Dae Jung has less than two years left in office. One person could help the beleaguered South Korean president: North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il.

It is time for Pyongyang to prove to the world with practical moves that it takes the process of inter-Korean reconciliation seriously. That would be the best Korean answer to the skeptics on the other side of the Pacific.

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