- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2001

After a day of full and "frank" discussions on Wednesday between President Bush and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, it was time yesterday for the South Korean visitor to pour a little oil on the troubled waters. Several critical circumstances made this visit a good bit less triumphant than Mr. Kim's first, just after his election three years ago.

The White House has not been pleased about Mr. Kim's stated intent to sign a peace "declaration" with North Korea. And it certainly was not pleased that he put his name to a communique with Russian President Vladimir Putin, just before leaving for Washington, stating that the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty (ABM) was "a cornerstone of strategic stability," and suggesting that American missile defense plans were a problem.

Yesterday, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, Mr. Kim said that he "deeply regrets such a controversy had to arise." Mr. Kim said that contrary to reports, the communique did not contain a clause about missile defense (though the Russians pushed it to the very end) and that the statement about ABM was nothing new, and in fact had been the U.S. position for years (which was true under President Clinton). "But I now regret it was included," he said. It certainly was not smart for South Korea to be seen siding with the Russians against the United States.

The desire of South Koreans for warmer relations with the North is understandable. Though South Korea is a wonder of free enterprise, in stark contrast with the devastated totalitarian North, 10 million Korean families are still separated, and many live with the memory of the horrors of the North Korean invasion 50 years ago. Mr. Kim is deeply concerned about time running out on his peace efforts. As he repeatedly stressed at AEI, "We must not lose this opportunity. We must assist so that North Korea can continue on the path of change. We must help so that it does not return to its old ways, which would be unwelcome by other countries and would not be good for North Korea itself."

However, time is not so pressing that the Bush administration should not be deliberate in its policy review towards North Korea, which is badly needed. Mr. Kim has achieved Nobel Peace Prize-winning successes by holding out the olive branch to North Korea, trade has grown and political exchanges have taken place. Still, the United States should proceed with caution, given our role as guarantor of the peace with 37,000 troops still on duty in the Korean Peninsula.

The Clinton administration's specialty was to answer North Korea's duplicity with concessions, whether dangerous nuclear reactors were the problem or missile development and sales. Bill Clinton was narrowly dissuaded from traveling to Pyongyang in the last weeks of his presidency to offer American rockets to the North Koreans for "satellite launches" in return for a supposed halt in North Korea's missile program.

Now, the Bush administration needs to take a firmer line to ensure that North Korea lives up to its nuclear commitments, stops sales of its Nodong missiles to countries like Libya, and agrees to relax its belligerent military posture. As the South Korean president remarked, openness and peacefulness is entirely in the interest of North Korea. This will not change even with a dose of realism administered along with the olive branches.

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