Reviewing the Korea-U.S. Summit: What Lies Beneath

Reviewing the Korea-U.S. Summit: What Lies Beneath
By Brent (Won-Ki) Choi February 22, 2002

On the surface, the February 20 summit meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung was a success. Underneath the superficial success lies a failure.

As I watched the live broadcast of the Kim-Bush summit Wednesday, my own fears were confirmed. Mr. Bush is indeed a simple-minded man who arrived in Seoul with only two concepts in mind: North Korea is a tyrannical regime that is to be criticized, and the United States will continue calling for dialogue. If Mr. Bush were genuinely interested in engaging with the North, he would not have sent such contradictory signals.

On the other hand, Mr. Bush did watch his tongue during his stay in Seoul. He avoided disturbing phrases like “axis of evil,” “conventional weapons,” and “skepticism,” and even praised President Kim Dae-Jung as a symbol of democracy in his speech at Dorasan Station. But the niceties didn’t last long. Mr. Bush expressed his sympathy for the starving children in the North and referred to North Korea as a “prison” for its people. At that moment Mr. Kim’s expression turned as rigid as granite, leaving Kim’s aides to watch in bewilderment. But simply focusing on the rhetoric ignores the real problem, which lies elsewhere. When the Bush administration took office in January 2001 the new team could not wait to set itself apart from the Clinton administration, and it singled out Clinton’s North Korea policy as a key area in which to delineate those differences. They might as well have waved a banner reading “Any way but the Clinton way!” when it came to dealing with Korean issues. The result has been, well, nothing. The White House is certainly not open to engaging the North, despite its half-hearted calls for dialogue, but it has not launched an all-out blockade of the Stalinist state either. Washington is content, it seems, to continue to pay the peninsula lip service but not offer any real solutions.

One possibility is that the White House team has resolved to hide its true anti-Pyongyang policy until Mr. Kim leaves office next year. Indeed, Lee Hoi-Chang, the leader of the Grand National Party (the main opposition party) and the likely successor to Mr. Kim, received a warm welcome during a recent trip to Washington. He met with leading members of the Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

This marked a significant departure from what had been Washington’s 50-year standing policy of “non-partisan support” for South Korea. Under that policy, opposition figures were not granted access to high level officials. Under normal circumstances the highest-ranking official Lee would have met with is the State Department’s deputy secretary for Asia-Pacific affairs. The high-level meetings indicate that the Bush administration has chosen to explicitly ally itself with South Korean political forces that will take a more hard-line approach to North Korea. No doubt Kim Jong-Il, possibly sitting in front of his television set 220 kilometers north of Seoul, was not happy with what he saw and heard February 20th either. He could turn his nation back into a hermit state, turning to old allies for help. Or he could swallow his pride and respond to Seoul and Washington. Neither scenario is likely. Mr. Kim is unlikely to find the kind of help he really needs in either Beijing or Moscow, the North’s old allies, and it is abundantly clear that the “Dear Leader” is not about to swallow his pride.

Furthermore, Pyongyang is running out of time. Kim Dae-Jung, who becomes more politically insignificant with each passing day, may be the North Korean regime’s only hope for dialogue. Waste more time and Pyongyang would be facing anther harsh wind by February next year when the new president takes up residence in the Blue House. Kim Jong-Il has just 11 months to brace himself for a change in leadership in Seoul that will probably take a very hard line in relations with the North.

A third way may be open to Kim. He could mix informal cultural and economic contacts with more formal political ones in order to keep aid and revenues flowing without sacrificing his pride. The best chances would be during North Korea’s Arirang Festival and the South’s World Cup finals later this year. The North may be able to send its soccer team to the South for a goodwill match, and the South could send a large tourist delegation to view the North’s massive gymnastic performance in return. The North could also complete its part of the Gyeongui rail line and agree to hold reunions of separated families. Pyongyang might also consider inviting delegations from Beijing and Washington to the festival, which would score points for the North both politically and economically.

Strictly speaking, the Korean Peninsula is going through a period of crisis, but with any crisis comes opportunity. It all depends on Pyongyang’s response. We’ll see how mature Pyongyang has become during the past two years of transition by observing its behavior over the next 11 months.

(Brent Choi < [email protected]< b > is a specialist on North Korea with the Unification Research Institute based in Seoul and an editor/researcher with the Joong-ang Daily, Seoul, Korea.) Mail this page to someone you know. Recipient’s Name: Recipient’s Email: Sender’s Name: Sender’s Email: to receive weekly commentary and expert analysis via our Progressive Response ezine. This page was last modified on Friday, February 22, 2002 7:57 PM Contact the IRC’s webmaster with inquiries regarding the functionality of this website. Copyright © 2001 IRC. All rights reserved.