Why the U.S. Changed its North Korea Stance

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Protesters in Seoul demand that North Korea not reactivate its old nuclear programs

To understand why the Bush administration backed down from its refusal to talk to North Korea, a good starting point might be the Bond film "Die Another Day." South Korean audiences were incensed over its portrayals of both their own country and its northern neighbor, and a sex scene inside a Buddhist monastery proved to be a big turnoff. But the scene that most angered many Koreans was one in which an American general orders the mobilization of South Korea's army. Nothing infuriates Koreans more than the suggestion that America sees them simply as a vassal state to be ordered around, and the South Korean ire directed against the Hollywood blockbuster has — in recent weeks, and for similar reasons — also been directed against the Bush Administration.

Following discussions with South Korean and Japanese officials in Washington, Tuesday, the Bush administration's announced it was willing to talk with North Korea — although it would offer no quid-pro-quo for Pyongyang complying with its nuclear obligations. Still, that was a major turnaround from its earlier refusal to negotiate over North Korea's decision to restart a nuclear program that could create weapons-grade plutonium within months. And it appears to have been authored largely by the government of South Korea, which is trying to end the crisis by securing concessions from both North Korea and the U.S.

North Korea has thrown out treaties curbing its nuclear activities and threatened to restart its weapons program, but it has also signaled a willingness to reconsider if the U.S. offers a non-aggression pact and energy aid. Washington points to Pyongyang's violation of a 1994 agreement to scrap its nuclear program, and insists it will not negotiate until North Korea keeps its word. With military pressure almost unthinkable against a power whose conventional arms give it the capability of destroying Seoul within hours, the Bush Administration has looked to sanctions and diplomatic pressure to leverage North Korean compliance. South Korea, however, has proposed that the U.S. provide a written guarantee of North Korea's security and undertake to resume fuel supplies in exchange for a verifiable end to nuclear weapons activity in that country. And they see raising the pressure on North Korea through sanctions as a dangerous course to pursue with a regime that has shown a readiness to raise the ante on the U.S. every time.

North Korea's nuclear initiative has exposed a crisis in the Bush Administration's Korea policy dating back to February of 2001, shortly after President Bush had taken office. Then-South Korean president Kim Dae Jung came to Washington six weeks after the Bush inauguration to urge the new administration to quickly resume the dialogue with North Korea launched by the Clinton Administration. Secretary of State Powell had said the new Administration would continue the Clinton policy, but when President Bush met President Kim, he put the kibosh on South Korea's hopes, warning that North Korea could not be trusted to keep its agreements. Bush's remarks were viewed as a slap-down of the South Korean president's "Sunshine" policy of engagement with the North, which infuriated Seoul and saw Pyongyang respond by chilling relations with the South.

It also created a policy vacuum in Washington. Although the Administration had plenty of reason to doubt North Korea's compliance and to demand stronger verification principles in the 1994 agreement, modification of the agreement through dialogue was not prioritized. The Bush Administration said its North Korea policy was under review. And the Administration's most public declaration of intent on North Korea came a year later, when Pyongyang was named as the third point on the President's "axis of evil" — a rhetorical signal of the Administration's desire for "regime-change" in Pyongyang, which set off alarm bells among U.S. allies throughout East Asia. Ten months later, North Korea dramatically upped the ante, first by defiantly pleading guilty to U.S. charges that it had been developing a secret uranium enrichment program, and then, when the U.S. responded by choking off energy supplies, it kicked out UN monitors and reopened a plutonium-extraction plant mothballed under the 1994 agreement.

The Bush administration may have been hoping that its disconnect with Seoul would end last December when South Koreans voted for a new president. Indications were that the hawkish conservative Lee Hoi Chang would win and end the "Sunshine" policy. Instead, the specter of a new confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea drove the electorate back into the arms of President Kim Dae Jung's Millennium Democratic Party, ensuring that his "Sunshine" policy would be maintained by new President-elect, Roh Moo Hyun. The election marks a repudiation by South Korean voters of the approach to North Korea by Bush Administration hawks, signaling the extent to which South Korean democracy has changed the game in Korea policy. During the Cold War, South Korea was less a democracy than an anticommunist authoritarian regime that could be relied on to do Washington's bidding — hence the image that caused such offense in the Bond movie. But Seoul's thriving post-Cold War democracy has put it at odds with a Cold War perspective on North Korea. South Korea wants to bring the North out of Stalinist barbarism, but through trade and engagement rather than confrontation. And, increasingly, South Korean voters want their leaders to take the reins from the U.S., which they see as following a provocative course unlikely to have positive results.

Following the talks in Washington, Bush Administration officials said the U.S. was willing to talk to North Korea, but there would be no quid-pro-quo for its compliance with nuclear agreements. Presumably, though, the South Korean initiative is based on making both North Korea and the U.S. comply with the 1994 agreement. And President Bush emphasized, for the umpteenth time since the weekend, that the U.S. has no intention of attacking North Korea. All of which suggests that in finding a way out of the showdown with Pyongyang, Washington may — unlike in the Bond movie — be beginning to take its lead from Seoul.