Bush's policies could set back relations with North Korea
March 29, 2001
George Bush is on the verge of making a big foreign policy blunder. Instead of running with the Clinton policy on North Korea, the Bush team appears to be fumbling the hand-off.
The new administration has reversed recent progress made between North Korea and the United States. During a March 7 meeting between President Bush and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, Bush dimmed Kim's hopes of reconciling with North Korea. Kim's efforts to bring about peace to the Korean Peninsula led to him being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
At the meeting, Bush accused North Korea of not adhering to agreements. When pressed by journalists, he was unable to give details. North Korea has predictably bristled at the new hard line. U.S.-North Korean relations could quickly degenerate into rhetorical one-upmanship.
Instead of listening more carefully to its South Korean ally in its effort to disarm the peninsula, the Bush team is busy rearming it. In February, for instance, Secretary of State Colin Powell pressured a South Korean trade official to purchase Boeing F-15 fighters. The United States later promised to sell $1.5 billion worth of high-tech guided missiles, but only if Korea buys the Boeing fighters.
And despite continued doubts concerning feasibility and cost, the Bush administration continues to make a national missile-defense program its strategic priority. By redrawing the Cold War line through East Asia, the Bush administration is accomplishing what communist ideology never did: create a North Korean, Chinese and Russian alliance.
South Korea is skeptical of missile defense. It has withheld official support of the program and has even sided with Russia in support of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which prevents the proliferation of national missile- defense systems.
While both the United States and South Korea have publicly taken pains to disguise their rift, South Korea is worried that the new U.S. policy will endanger engagement with North Korea and unnecessarily irritate China.
Unification is the centerpiece of South Korean foreign policy. Seoul recognizes that engagement with North Korea is a slow, patient process. After the landmark summit between the two Korean leaders in June 2000, relations between their countries have steadily improved. There have been new economic agreements, three rounds of reunions for divided families and preparations to re-link the train system between the two countries.
North Korea continues to open up to the outside world, establishing new diplomatic links with Britain, Germany and other European countries. And with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il visiting China in January, the country hopes to also explore its economic options.
The Clinton administration played an important role in opening up talks with North Korea. It negotiated the Agreed Framework in 1994 that ended the country's nuclear program in exchange for heavy fuel shipments and two light-water reactors. And, with North Korea adhering to a moratorium on missile tests, the Clinton administration nearly struck a deal that would have compensated North Korea for stopping its missile program. This "engagement policy" supported South Korea's own attempts to reach out to the North.
While initially mouthing support for the Clinton policy, the Bush administration has announced that North Korea will have to jump through more difficult hoops to verify the suspension of its missile program and the placement of its conventional weapons.
But it's not too late for the Bush administration to alter its tone. A missile agreement with North Korea is within reach, particularly now with European Union support. Kim Dae Jung still has two more years in office before he too must hand over his North Korea policy to his successor.
There is still time for Bush to listen more carefully to the real experts on the Korean Peninsula: the Koreans themselves, who overwhelmingly seek peace and reunification.
John Feffer and Karin Lee are based in Tokyo, where they work for American Friends Service Committee, East Asia Quaker International Affairs Program (www.afsc.org). John Feffer is a writer for "Foreign Policy In Focus." They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.