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Op-Ed

Bush and Korea: What Next?

As the new Bush Administration enters office, it will review US policy towards North Korea. Given Republican criticism of President Clinton ‘s efforts to improve relations with Pyongyang, the outcome of this review is unclear. What is clear is that the United States is entering a “shakedown” period that could last several months as the new Administration tries to get its footing on this difficult issue.

In conducting its review, the Bush Administration will have to pay close attention to the views of allies, particularly South Korea. The trilateral approach adopted after the review of US policy by former Secretary of Defense William Perry emphasized seeking better relations. It would be difficult to jettison, particularly if Japan and South Korea do not want to change. The upcoming visits to Washington by Foreign Minister-and President Kim Dae Jung will be important opportunities to lobby for continuity in policy towards Pyongyang and strong support for South Korean efforts. But President Kim’s influence may be tempered by greater sensitivity among Republicans to his conservative critics in Seoul and by recognition that his tenure is running out.

North Korea’s actions may also influence the policy review. Continuing North Korean efforts to engage the outside world, particularly Seoul, and to explore economic reform, while rightly viewed with some skepticism, will make it easier for a new Administration to stick with a moderate approach. Conversely, a tougher North Korean policy-perhaps drawing back from engagement with the South or strongly resisting further limits on its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles programs—- would encourage a tougher American approach.

Finally, Republican attitudes will be important. Their skepticism towards Clinton’s policy was politically-motivated, but also reflected deeply-held views. New appointees in the Pentagon and the White House are decidedly conservative and could easily advocate a tougher approach in dealing with the North. This may be reinforced by potential splits between moderate regional experts and more conservative specialists in arms control and non-proliferation throughout the Administration. In general, the State Department is attracting moderates, but is still more conservative than the Clinton State Department.

Considering all of these factors, President Bush may adopt a similar policy to President Clinton but not exactly the same. The Administration may try to rein in President Kim, arguing like some in Seoul, that he is giving away too much and not getting enough. Alternatively, it may step back, arguing that President Kim should take the lead and the US will play a supporting role. Either step would be unwise since both would undermine fragile political support for rapprochement in Seoul. Finally, the Administration may try to distinguish itself from its predecessor through specific policy changes that might be misperceived by Pyongyang. Attaching strings to food aid or renegotiating the 1994 nuclear agreement, moves advocated by some experts, may make some sense but could be viewed by Pyongyang as a major change in direction and therefore damage engagement

These circumstances present the new US Administration with both opportunity and danger. The opportunity is the US can play an active, influential and positive role in trying to shape a transition away from Cold War confrontation to a more peaceful, stable Korean peninsula. The danger is that it will become a prisoner of its own rhetoric and, in so doing, will either wittingly or unwittingly abort that process with negative consequences not only for American interests in the region, but also for our close allies, South Korea and Japan.

The bottom line is, given the history of vocal Republican opposition to Clinton’s policy, the Bush Administration is viewed with some nervousness by North Koreans and many South Koreans. The challenge it faces is to build up credibility with both North and South while making the necessary policy adjustments that will serve both Washington and Seoul well over the long haul. That does not mean making unnecessary concessions but it does mean striking a fine balance between continuity of policy and new initiatives. Secretary of State Colin Powell hit the right note when he said in his confirmation hearing that the Administration intends to abide by the 1994 nuclear agreement while it reviews US policy.

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Following this prescription, the Administration should take a number of steps. It could demonstrate support for South Korea and send the right signal to the North by establishing a Korea reconciliation fund. Such a fund would provide assistance-funneled through Seoul, non-governmental and multi-lateral organizations—for a wide range of programs from food aid to defense conversion. Second, the Administration should continue implementation of the 1994 nuclear agreement but seek to accelerate removal from the North of known nuclear material. There is enough in the North to build about five nuclear weapons. This could be done through linking the provision of further energy assistance, such as electricity from the South, to early removal of this dangerous material. Third, President Bush should push forward with negotiating limits on the North’s ballistic missile program building on the groundwork that has been done by the Clinton Administration. Finally, the US, working closely with Seoul, should actively pursue mutual conventional force reductions. Such reductions were not pursued by the Clinton Administration but should be given a fresh look in view of the budding rapprochement with Pyongyang and the likelihood that Republicans are better positioned than Democrats in the United States to manage possible troop reductions.

Above all, the new Administration should recognize that rapprochement is a fragile process and it should do everything possible to reinforce that process. President Kim is threatened by the lack of perceived progress with the North as well as domestic political and economic problems. Chairman Kim Chong-il may not be following some well-mapped out grand strategy, but instead may be feeling his way, concerned about skeptics at home and the threat posed to his rule by opening up to the outside world. Moreover, if he were to pass from the scene, it is unclear what would follow.

Above all, the new Administration should recognize that rapprochement is a fragile process and it should do everything possible to reinforce that process. President Kim is threatened by the lack of perceived progress with the North as well as domestic political and economic problems. Chairman Kim Chong-il may not be following some well-mapped out grand strategy, but instead may be feeling his way, concerned about skeptics at home and the threat posed to his rule by opening up to the outside world. Moreover, if he were to pass from the scene, it is unclear what would follow.

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