- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2002

President Bush today faces the first concrete test of his policy towards an "axis of evil" country since invoking that term in his State of the Union address last month. During his summit meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, Mr. Bush will debut his skills in coordinating strategy for handling North Korea, an "axis" country, with Mr. Kim, a close U.S. ally. Mr. Bush is expected to outline U.S. policy towards North Korea and thereby indicate how the White House plans to treat the axis, which Mr. Bush says is comprised of the main threats to world peace today: Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

Many press reports have emphasized the potential for discord between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kim over how to approach the volatile North Korean regime. Mr. Bush's summit in Seoul will be the most challenging stop on his Asian tour, which includes a just-completed visit to Tokyo and an upcoming stay in Beijing. It is possible that the great differences in the two presidents' tone and rhetoric regarding Pyongyang could translate into substantive policy differences, but there are clear signs that both countries are willing to coordinate their policies to form a balanced strategy.

Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy defense secretary, said the U.S. "supports South Korea's efforts to engage the North." And Mr. Bush demonstrated his intention to continue to work with allies during a press conference in Japan Monday, stating, "We've got a coalition of freedom-loving nations that can work together to, hopefully, help [North Korea, Iran and Iraq] change their behavior."

All the same, the White House has begun to articulate its own formula for handling the north. While Mr. Kim has actively courted engagement with North Korea through his sunshine policy, the Bush administration has demonstrated an aversion to gratuitous engagement. In a briefing with U.S. reporters, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said that "we want dialogue on some specific issues. We don't want dialogue for the sake of dialogue. That's not worth it."

Mr. Bush echoed the same sentiment on Friday: "I made an offer to have dialogue with North Korea. And they didn't accept. So I guess the main impediment is they don't want to have a dialogue." This reticence to negotiate without a clear sense of what topics may be broached distinguishes this White House from the Clinton administration, which allowed the communist regime to set the agenda for talks and therefore failed to make any substantive breakthroughs.

Mr. Bush wants to avoid this mistake and has clearly delineated key U.S. concerns, which are the density of troops on the border between the north and south, the north's missile and nuclear weapons programs and its willingness to sell military hardware to parties that could pose a global threat to peace. At the same time, Mr. Bush made clear that North Korea will reap the benefits if it discontinues these threatening policies.

To some extent, the policy guidelines Mr. Bush set before his summit meeting with Mr. Kim can be considered somewhat tentative, given Mr. Bush's tendency to coordinate his anti-terror tactics with allies. The strategy Mr. Bush articulates after his meeting with Mr. Kim will be regarded as more definitive and will set a concrete precedent for the White House's approach to the "axis" states.

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