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SEOUL — Whatever their personal opinions about U.S. President George W. Bush may be, supporters and foes must agree that his foreign policy has not received good grades in European capitals.

In a matter of weeks, Bush succeeded in snubbing the European allies on several occasions. The most serious provocations in the eyes of the Europeans have been Washington’s decision to renounce the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, its propensity for picking fights with the Russians, and its Korean policy.

Europeans have supported South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policy from the beginning. This cannot be said of the Bush administration, however, which can be called the gravedigger of the conciliatory process.

With the aim of counterbalancing the negative effects of the shift in American foreign policy, the Europeans have decided to get involved in Korean affairs, which have traditionally been considered to be in America’s strategic backyard.

In early May, a senior delegation from the European Union will visit Pyongyang and Seoul. “The aim is to express support for the process started by Kim Dae Jung,” said Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU for the first half of this year, and who will lead the delegation.

Stockholm’s foreign minister was more explicit: “It’s becoming clear that the new U.S. administration wants to take a more hardline approach toward North Korea. Europe must step in to help reduce tension between the two Koreas.”

The Europeans’ diplomatic mission has been carefully prepared. In early March, Swedish State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Hans Dahlgren went to Pyongyang to pave the way for the European-North Korean summit. Two weeks later, North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Su Hon stopped in Stockholm during a tour of European capitals.

While in Pyongyang, Dahlgren fixed most details of the upcoming high-level European visit. It has been reported that the Europeans will not confine themselves to a photo session with the “Dear Leader.” With the North Koreans having accepted all the important points of the agenda proposed by the Europeans, the EU delegation is expected to have “full and substantial discussions with Chairman Kim Jong Il.”

The North Koreans also assured the Europeans that they remained “fully committed to implementing the North-South Joint Declaration” of June 15, 2000, and also agreed to discuss human rights, military confidence-building measures, missile-related questions, economic reforms and conditions for providing humanitarian assistance.

It may be assumed that the South Koreans are aware of this agenda. Yet, surprisingly, the South’s response toward the European initiative has been lukewarm at best.

Some media commentators even suggested the Europeans should stay away: “Drawing the European Union into the Korean Peninsula will only complicate matters with no practical effect,” wrote one newspaper. Another columnist stated, “the EU intervention may eventually create more problems than solutions on the path to permanent peace.”

Meanwhile, the South Korean government has publicly distanced itself from the European project.

“It’s their independent initiative,” new Foreign Minister Han Seung Soo was quoted as saying. “We wouldn’t like to see the EU’s visit misconstrued by others to appear as if we asked them,” remarked the minister, who has been praised for his cordial relations with U.S. conservatives.

This statement shows just how anxious the government in Seoul is to avoid anything that could possibly irritate Washington. This attitude was also apparent when the South Korean government filed an official protest with a major U.S. newspaper after it reported that Kim Dae Jung had “stepped up his pleas for an EU role after the disappointing talks with Bush in Washington.”

The timing of this statement may be inaccurate, but the substance is correct: While Kim may have refrained from inviting the European initiative after his humiliating encounter with Bush in early March, it is recorded that the South Korean president raised the idea of a summit between the EU presidency and Kim Jong Il when he visited Sweden to receive his Nobel Peace Prize last year.

But that was last year, a time when the United States was governed by President Bill Clinton, a staunch supporter of the engagement policy. Things have changed since Bush and his entourage moved into the White House. Not only has the new U.S. chief executive effectively brought the Korean peace process to a standstill, it also seems that he has let the South Koreans know the political music plays in Washington rather than in Stockholm, Brussels or Pyongyang.

As is right and proper among governments that profess to be allies, the Swedish state secretary for foreign affairs visited Washington in early April to share with the Americans the details of the upcoming EU mission to the Korean Peninsula. Surprisingly, the Americans expressed their support and encouragement for the European effort to engage North Korea.

The Americans might not be wildly enthusiastic about the European initiative, but then, there is little they can do to prevent it. Therefore, South Koreans who prematurely demonstrated that they were more Catholic than the pope when it comes to upholding American political exclusiveness in this part of the world should pause for a moment and consider that even their trans-Pacific guardian has openly supported the European effort.

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