- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2001

SEOUL Bill Clinton sought to cap his presidency with a groundbreaking trip to North Korea that would have symbolically at least ended a state of war that has lasted for half a century on the Korean peninsula.
His decision not to go came as a relief to critics, who feared that Mr. Clinton was far too eager to embrace an unpredictable communist state that still maintains a million-man army poised to attack South Korea and the 37,000 American troops on its territory.
The five-decade standoff has bonded the United States and South Korea into one of the world's closest military alliances. But the partnership is now being tested by the arrival of a new administration in Washington and the unprecedented flow of ideas, people and commerce between the two Koreas.
It is those strains that bring South Korean President Kim Dae-jung to Washington this week as the first Asian leader to meet the new American president.
Mr. Kim already is the only South Korean leader ever to meet his North Korean counterpart. Their summit last June brought the North's once-reclusive Kim Jong-il to television screens throughout the world.
The South Korean president's "sunshine policy" of engaging the North blended almost seamlessly with Mr. Clinton's own goal to sign a deal in Pyongyang that would put North Korea out of the business of making and exporting missiles.
Mr. Clinton left office saying a missile deal had been "teed up" for the next president to sign, but no one expects President Bush to beat a path to Pyongyang. That leaves the two presidents to chart a new course at their meeting Wednesday.
The South Koreans worry that Mr. Bush will be far more skeptical than Mr. Clinton about the sunshine policy that helped Mr. Kim win the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
U.S. officials have already indicated that Mr. Bush will back Mr. Kim's attempts to draw the North out of its isolation. But Mr. Bush has an agenda of his own, with a planned national missile defense (NMD) at the center of his foreign policy.
The contrast between Washington's caution and South Korea's enthusiasm could well work to the benefit of both allies, said Edwin Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
"It's a little bit like good-cop, bad-cop," said Mr. Feulner. Though Mr. Bush's approach may be different in tone and nuance from that of Mr. Kim, "peace on the Korean peninsula primarily depends on Seoul and Pyongyang, and Washington has to work through Seoul."

Washington's worries

Seoul's agenda centers on promoting trade, investment, family visits and other contacts with its longtime foe in hopes of one day reuniting in a single Korean nation.
Washington, by contrast, is far more concerned with preventing North Korea from developing and deploying missiles and other weapons of mass destruction.
Washington fears:
North Korea's proven ability to build warhead-tipped rockets capable of reaching targets in the continental United States.
North Korea's deployment of hundreds of Scud-type missiles not unlike those used by Iraq in the Persian Gulf war that are capable of hitting American troops in South Korea, and dense population centers as far away as Osaka, Japan.
Pyongyang's sales of missiles and missile-building technology to unsavory clients such as Iran and Syria, a business believed to bring it from $100 million to $400 million yearly in badly needed hard currency.
Mr. Bush says he is determined to push ahead with missile defense, citing in a speech to Congress last week the need "to protect our own people, our allies and friends."
South Korea has thus far avoided taking a public stance on U.S. missile-defense plans, prompting speculation in Seoul that Mr. Kim will make his views known during this week's summit.
Pyongyang vehemently opposes the project as does Russia and China, both of which have worked behind the scenes to ease the hostility of their longtime ally, North Korea, toward the South.

Concerns in Seoul

A potential fissure between South Korea and the United States opened last week during a visit to Seoul by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Kim and Mr. Putin signed off on a joint communique calling the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty "the cornerstone of strategic stability and an important foundation of international efforts on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation."
The two leaders also said they hoped to "preserve and strengthen" the treaty, which, unless modified, would prevent Mr. Bush from deploying a missile shield.
Embarrassed by reports that Mr. Kim had sided with Mr. Putin against the United States, South Korean officials sought to limit the fallout prior to this week's White House summit.
South Korean officials said they were sympathetic yet cautious about backing the U.S. plan.
"The global security environment today is different from that during the Cold War and thus requires a different approach," said South Korean Foreign Minister Lee Joung-binn. "We hope the U.S. government will proceed with this matter in such a way as to strengthen global peace and security through full consultation with its allies and other related countries."
Despite the potential for discord over missile defense, a deal between Washington and Pyongyang to rid North Korea of its missiles remains within reach, and the Bush administration has left open the possibility of resuming talks where the Clinton administration left off, said Scott Snyder, who heads the Seoul office of the Asia Foundation.
"Every new administration is entitled to spend some time at the practice greens, stretching and getting warmed up," said Mr. Snyder, author of an authoritative book on North Korean diplomacy titled "Negotiating on the Edge."
"As long as [North Korea] can be assured that the new administration will approach negotiations in good faith when it is ready, an interval period for preparation is fine," he said.
Whatever agreement the Clinton administration had in mind "probably would have been deemed unsatisfactory by the [Bush] administration, which approaches North Korea with more caution, skepticism and distrust," Mr. Snyder added.
South Korea's push for a summit early in the Bush administration reflected concerns that Washington's skepticism toward Pyongyang would straitjacket South Korea's attempts to engage its longtime foe.
However, in public, Washington and Seoul simply describe the meeting as part of an ongoing effort to coordinate policy among close allies.

A history of hostility

North Korea spent the Cold War years sealed off from the West, building its economy and a formidable military machine with generous subsidies from the Soviet Union.
In June 1950, its troops seized most of South Korea after pouring across the border in a surprise predawn attack. The fighting ended three years later, with the original border barely changed but some 3 million Koreans and more than 30,000 American GIs dead.
The North, under its founding leader, Kim Il-sung, established a militant homegrown ideology known as "juche," or self-reliance, that set up Mr. Kim as a godlike figure. Instead of being blamed for a ruinous war with the United States, history was rewritten to make him the patriotic hero who saved the nation from an invasion by American "imperialists."
Throughout the Cold War, North Korea made headlines with occasional terrorist attacks. It bombed the South Korean Cabinet during a state visit to Rangoon, Burma, blew up a South Korean passenger jet over Southeast Asia, seized a U.S. spy ship in international waters and sent commandos to attack the presidential palace in Seoul.
When the Cold War ended and Soviet subsidies dried up, North Korea plunged into a famine in which up to 2 million, or one in 10 people, perished.
It sought to develop nuclear weapons, sparking a 1994 crisis with the United States in which one North Korean official threatened to turn Seoul into a "lake of fire."
A deal brokered by President Jimmy Carter ended that crisis. The North mothballed its nuclear program and in exchange, the United States, South Korea and Japan agreed to build it two modern atomic power plants with technology less-suitable for making atom-bomb fuel.
Implementing the agreement, which remains far behind schedule, sparked periodic crises throughout Mr. Clinton's administration, in which Pyongyang on several occasions threatened to walk away from the deal.
Pyongyang would typically back down amid pledges of food to ease its famine and other aid from the United States and others.
But high on Mr. Kim's agenda this week is an effort to secure the new administration's public commitment to complete construction of the two atomic-power plants in the North, now slated for 2008, five years behind schedule.

Fears on Capitol Hill

Perceived flaws in the nuclear deal, however, have sparked renewed concerns last week by both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
In a letter to Mr. Bush on Friday, three key lawmakers, two Republicans and one Democrat, urged the president to exercise caution in making pledges to the South Korean president.
"Pending further discussions between Congress and your Administration in this regard, we urge you to avoid making any commitments to foreign governments that would prejudice your ability to refine U.S. policy toward North Korea," said the letter signed by Republican Reps. Henry H. Hyde of Illinois, Christopher Cox of California and Democratic Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts.
The letter was prompted by an attempt by the Clinton administration last fall to modify the nuclear accord by replacing one of the two atomic power plants promised to North Korea by a conventional power plant, which could be quickly built and help ease chronic energy shortages in the North.
When U.S. officials approached Seoul, however, the idea was flatly rejected because it would disrupt lucrative construction contracts that have been promised to South Korean companies.
The latter part of the decade was also marked by a transition of power to Kim Jong-il, who took over when his father, Kim Il-sung, died in 1994.
Last year, as the younger Mr. Kim grew increasingly confident, North Korea began to open up to the world, establishing diplomatic ties with a half-dozen industrial nations including Britain and Canada.
Then, the once-reclusive Mr. Kim shocked outsiders and his own countrymen by embracing South Korea's sunshine policy.
He allowed thousands of South Korean tourists to visit a mountain retreat in the North and permitted carefully orchestrated reunions of families who had been separated since the Korean War.
He agreed to open trade with the South and even to let his military work with South Korean soldiers to clear land mines in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) so that a long-severed rail link could be reconnected.

Albright in Pyongyang

The climax of North-South rapprochement came in June, when Kim Jong-il welcomed South Korea's Kim Dae-jung to Pyongyang. The North Korean leader proved an engaging host, barely resembling the squeaky-voiced recluse long portrayed by South Korea's own propaganda machine.
The thaw spread to the Clinton administration, which sent Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to Pyongyang in October.
There she watched as perhaps 200,000 flag-waving North Koreans performed at a stadium. Masses of jubilant performers swarmed a stage where Mr. Kim and Mrs. Albright sat like objects of worship.
North Korean hosts beamed with pride at the display of socialist unity while Western visitors watched with mouths agape, as if witnessing the glory days of the Third Reich through a time warp. Critics complained that Mrs. Albright had handed Mr. Kim an enormous propaganda coup.
A generation of North Koreans who had known the United States only through carefully prepared images such as postage stamps showing North Koreans gleefully bayoneting American solders suddenly turned like a school of fish.
During the two days Mrs. Albright spent in Pyongyang, ordinary North Koreans in the squeaky clean capital of faceless apartment blocks spoke of their hopes for friendship with the United States.
Mrs. Albright came home with the first official confirmation of North Korea's offer to stop making and selling missiles if the United States provided rockets to launch its satellites into space.
That, in turn, led Mr. Clinton to push for a visit to Pyongyang in the final days of his presidency to consummate the deal. As his term ended, U.S. officials claimed a missile agreement could be sealed with just one more month of talks.

Caution in Washington

The atmosphere awaiting Mr. Kim in Washington this week is far less frenetic.
Military experts and Pentagon planners caution that despite its peace overtures, North Korea still keeps its forces on hair-trigger alert and poised to strike across the 150-mile-long Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Most recently, the North conducted winter exercises with U.S. spy satellites and reconnaissance planes looking on as if the Cold War had never ended.
"It's the only place on earth with American troops where war could break out tomorrow," said one Western diplomat in Seoul.
Every aspect of this week's talks between Mr. Bush and Kim Dae-jung will be colored by the presence of the 37,000 American troops in the South.
When the 1994 nuclear standoff began, the United States was in the process of reducing its troop strength in Korea, a withdrawal begun during the first Bush administration when Vice President Richard B. Cheney was defense secretary and Secretary of State Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The crisis prompted a study by Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye, which came to be known as the "Nye Report," recommending that the United States maintain 100,000 troops in East Asia and freeze U.S. forces in South Korea at the present level.
"I still think it is important to maintain the presence of about 100,000 troops forward-based in East Asia," said Mr. Nye, now dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
"As I often said in speeches, 100,000 is not a magic number. It could decrease if the security environment improved dramatically such as an end to all threats from North Korea or it could increase if the security situation worsened… .
"The key is to work with our allies so that they are reassured rather than surprised by any changes," said Mr. Nye.
Larry Niksch, an Asia specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, said a reconsideration of American troop levels in Asia will eventually be unavoidable, given Mr. Bush's recent pledge to overhaul the military with new technologies to create a light, mobile and more lethal fighting force.
"Perhaps there will be fewer ground forces but an increase in more mobile sea and air forces. These are things that people are already talking about at the Pentagon," said Mr. Niksch.
It may be too early for Mr. Bush and Mr. Kim to begin discussing U.S. troop deployments in South Korea, since the White House only recently began a "top-to-bottom" review of the entire U.S. military.
Both leaders appear committed to maintaining the U.S. military presence. Mr. Kim claims his North Korean counterpart has warmed to the idea of a permanent American presence on the peninsula as well, as a check on China, Russia and Japan.

Peace talks sought

Prior to the summit, the Bush administration has sought to calm South Korean fears of pressure from Washington to slow down its sunshine policy.
"There may be concerns at the extreme about the possibility of switching to a hard line but I believe that is rather remote from the policy line [signaled by] the Bush administration," said Mr. Lee, South Korea's foreign minister, in a recent interview.
"We see it as a win-win situation," Mr. Lee said. "I expect South-North Korean exchanges to be even further accelerated rather than slowing this year."
However Mr. Powell told lawmakers at his Senate confirmation hearing in January that, while open to continued engagement with the North, the Bush administration would move ahead "without any sense of haste."
Of particular concern is North Korea's three-stage Taepo dong missile, tested in 1998, which proved Pyongyang had the capability of hitting Hawaii and parts of Alaska.
The North agreed not to test its improved Taepo dong II missile while missile talks continue with the United States.
Late last month, however, Pyongyang brandished a threat to go ahead with testing, citing the failure of the Bush administration to resume talks begun under Mr. Clinton.
"As there is no agreement whatsoever between [North Korea] and the United States, we will no longer be bound by our proposals concerning the missile issue made during the previous administration." North Korea repeated the threat yesterday.

Critics in Seoul

Uncertainty over the next step in North-South relations appears equally prevalent in Seoul, where Mr. Kim just began the final two years of his presidency.
Many complain that South Korean concessions to the North have not been matched by Pyongyang and question whether the South can afford to continue aiding the North.
Among the harshest critics is Lee Hoi-chang, leader of the opposition Grand National Party and the current front-runner to succeed Mr. Kim.
Mr. Lee said he welcomes the increase in exchanges and contacts between North and South, but he warned that "the principle of reciprocity has not been upheld."
Mr. Lee was especially critical of a deal in which the Hyundai Group, with backing from the South Korean government, agreed to pay Pyongyang nearly $1 billion for rights to ferry South Korean tourists to a mountain resort in the North.
"Hyundai's economic cooperation with North Korea is becoming burdensome not only for Hyundai, but for the entire country," Mr. Lee said in an interview in Seoul.
As he spoke, officials from cash-strapped Hyundai were meeting North Korean officials in Pyongyang in an attempt to reduce its $12 million monthly fee to the North.
At the very least, Mr. Bush and Mr. Kim appear set on achieving continuity in military alliance.
"Whether it is a Republican administration or a Democratic administration … America's policy toward the Korean peninsula has always been to secure peace and stability and prevent another war," said Mr. Lee, the foreign minister.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide