- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2001

Now that the curtain has come down on the first act of the Bush administration's Asia policy, there are far more questions than answers about U.S. policy after President Kim Dae-jung's visit to the United States.

It was great fun for the media, which feasted on the mixed messages from a skeptical President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell emanating from the new administration and the gaps between Mr. Bush's and Mr. Kim's perspectives on North Korea. Of course, there will be differences, and it made for great headlines. But I suspect the widely reported policy differences may in the end be more questions of tactics and emphasis than of strategy and goals.

In fact, Mr. Kim's visit was a useful, if somewhat painful, exercise for both sides, part of a push and pull "search for consensus" process of policy formulation for a new government still in formation and of policy coordination among allies. For a Bush administration that has yet to put its Asia policy team in place, it was not reasonable to expect a fully considered policy.

In any case, a careful look at what actually was said between the two leaders reveals more common ground that the media coverage would suggest.

First, Mr. Bush is sincere and serious about wanting to bolster ties to U.S .allies, as he said repeatedly in two presidents' joint press conference and statement. Mr. Bush opened their joint press conference with gushing praise for President Kim's "leadership in terms of reaching out to the North Koreans," adding that President Kim's "vision of peace" is "a goal we share."

Perhaps the most revealing point President Bush made was his frank 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 President Kim, in his speech before the American Enterprise Institute, mentioned the idea that changes in North Korea may be "merely temporary or tactical."

Thus, for all the media sensationalism, it is clear the Bush administration supports Seoul's Sunshine policy. There is no question that 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: the question of how to implement it, 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 rather 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 would undermine political stability. Can any U.S.-South Korea-Japan 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? Recall that when China began its economic reforms, it was the "military last," of its Four Modernizations, not first. Beijing understood that without a modern economy and technological base, no serious military can be sustained. Does Pyongyang understand this?

Much has been made of the Bush administration's reluctance to rush back to the table and reach a missile deal, which frantic 11th hour efforts by the Clinton administration failed to conclude. Mr. Powell has repeated that there are some "promising elements" on the table that the administration will look at as it forges its new policy. Some argue there is a "window of opportunity" that will soon shut if it is not seized. This is nonsense. It is the North Koreans that waited 15 months before responding to the Perry initiative. They had no sense of urgency, and that is why President Clinton ran out of time. If there is a deal now, it will be there later when Mr. Bush finishes his policy review.

Moreover, close inspection of what was left on the negotiating table reveals there was considerable distance to go before a credible missile deal could be reached. 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 (No Dong) and long-range missiles (Taepo Dong 1and 2). But he only agreed to freeze not dismantle nearly 100 No Dong missiles already deployed and able to reach Japan and U.S. forces in Japan and his Taepo Dong program.

Nor was there 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, whereby the U.S., 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 on which 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 (LWR). Moreover, it is argued (properly) that if Seoul provides free electricity to North Korea, it undermines the nuclear deal: Why would the North allow IAEA in 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." The issue is that any peace regime should be linked not just to symbolic acts or rhetoric about tension reduction, but concrete moves to reduce the threat. Otherwise there will be unwarranted political pressures on both Washington and Seoul to reduce forces and false expectations. 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 United States 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 where 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, it is the choices made by North Korea that 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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