How Bush Skepticism Is Clouding Koreas' 'Sunshine' Courtship

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Thousands of card-choreographers demonstrate North Korea's military might

Last week President Bush blew a few dark clouds over President Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine Policy" of reconciliation with North Korea. And those clouds burst on Tuesday, as the North Koreans canceled a long-scheduled cabinet-level meeting with their South Korean counterparts to prepare for a planned visit by the communist state's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il, to Seoul in the spring. Although no reason was provided for the cancellation — and it could simply be another quirky rescheduling, as when the North Koreans postponed last year's historic visit to Pyongyang by a couple of days — the tenor of statements emanating from the North Korean capital suggested otherwise. A Pyongyang radio broadcast urged South Koreans to reject "subservience and reliance on outside forces," a clear reference to last week's meeting in Washington where President Bush appeared to warn President Kim that North Korea could not be trusted.

The South Korean leader had gone to Washington to urge President Bush to quickly pursue talks started by the Clinton administration aimed at normalizing relations with North Korea and ending the impoverished communist state's missile program in exchange for economic assistance. But President Kim found the Bush administration skeptical of the Clinton approach — and by implication, of South Korea's own efforts at reconciliation. In particular, the Bush team was anxious to reopen negotiations over the 1994 agreement between North Korea and Japan, South Korea and the U.S. to provide energy assistance in exchange for the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program — an option President Kim warned would not be accepted by the North Koreans. But President Bush stated outright that he was skeptical of agreements reached with a regime as secretive as Pyongyang's.

Washington's slap-down left the South Korean leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has made reconciliation with the North the centerpiece of his presidency, high and dry. President Kim had warned that the a tougher line from the U.S. would drive North Korea's leader back into his reclusive and unpredictable shell, and that point appeared to be underscored by Pyongyang's decision to cancel Tuesday's talks. And a fit of diplomatic pique may be the best-case scenario — the South Koreans are concerned that if North Korea perceives a more hostile shift in Washington, it may renew its unpredictable military brinkmanship in order to put pressure on the U.S. and South Korea. Pyongyang has spent much of the past decade acting crazy with missiles in order to extort aid and concessions from the U.S. and its allies in the region, and there are sound reasons to fear renewed tensions along the Cold War's most volatile border, which separates the South Korean army and some 40,000 U.S. troops from the 1 million men North Korea retains under arms.

With Washington and Seoul somewhat out of alignment over how to deal with the North, much now depends on President Kim's ability to rally South Korean voters, many of whom have begun to question just how much their country is gaining from the "Sunshine Policy." Even more important, though, may be the reaction of China. Beijing, which maintains close ties with both the North Korean regime and President Kim's administration in the South, has played a major role in facilitating the rapprochement between the two Koreas — a scenario from which its stands to benefit both economically and strategically. Last year, shortly before his meeting with President Kim, the North Korean "Dear Leader" made a rare foreign trip, spending a week in consultation with Chinese leaders in Beijing. The Chinese are believed to have helped coax the diplomatically reclusive Kim Jong Il to pursue talks with South Korea and the West. And Korea watchers will watch closely to see whether the North Korean Kim heads for Beijing any time soon. After all, China is the closest thing North Korea has to a powerful friend.