President Bush is on his way to Asia for a week long visit that includes stops in Japan, China and South Korea. The president's recent depiction of North Korea as part of an axis of evil has stirred controversy in Seoul and set the stage for a mixed reception for the U.S. leader.
When President Bush visits South Korea Tuesday, he will travel to the Demilitarized Zone that divides the Korean Peninsula, and may even get a quick glimpse of the country he recently described as forming an axis of evil, along with Iran and Iraq.
President Bush's now famous remark was delivered during his January 29 State of the Union address. He described communist North Korea as a regime arming itself with missiles and weapons of mass destruction while starving its citizens.
His words provoked a firestorm from Pyongyang, which denounced the U.S. leader, saying he was attempting to launch a war of aggression.
But it also shocked many in South Korea, and sparked fears that his words could lead to increased tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang. Ever since the president's speech, small groups of protesters have demonstrated in front of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul while other activists have burned U.S. flags on the capital's streets. Media surveys have found that up to 60 percent of the public views the axis comment as inappropriate.
Lee Chung-min is a professor of international relations at Seoul's Yonsei University. "From the local perspective here in Seoul, most people in the government understand why President Bush says that North Korea is a rogue state with a robust WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) program and an abysmal human rights record. I think most people agree that is the case," he said. "But making that assertion public raises the ante on both sides."
President Bush's visit to Seoul will serve as a closely-watched test of whether his tough talk will aid or hinder his policy objectives in Asia, and on the Korean Peninsula in particular.
Scott Snyder is a Seoul-based representative for the Asia Foundation. According to him, Mr. Bush's recent comments embarrassed South Korean leader Kim Dae-jung, who has made his so-called "sunshine policy of engagement with North Korea" the centerpiece of his presidency.
"Many times in Asian culture, if you have a relationship with someone, it means that relationship has to be respected," said Mr. Snyder. "And as a result, there is a limit in terms of what one might say, especially in hearing range of the other person, or there would be concern about what might get back to the other person. Essentially, the decision to have a relationship means that President Kim Dae-jung may feel that he cannot afford to demonize his negotiating counterpart."
Secretary of State Colin Powell has reassured the South Korean government that despite President Bush's tough talk, Washington still backs the peace process on the Korean Peninsula and is ready to hold talks with Pyongyang at any time and without pre-conditions. President Bush is expected to confirm that message in Seoul.
But this is not the first time that President Bush has influenced relations between Pyongyang and Seoul. The North-South dialogue, which peaked with an historic summit between President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in June of 2000, stalled after President Bush took office last January and said he needed to review U.S. policy toward the Stalinist North Korean regime. That decision clearly angered North Korea and curtailed the contacts that had taken place when President Clinton was in office.
Now, Professor Lee of Yonsei University says that many in South Korea are looking to President Bush to voice strong support for the North-South dialogue and in President Kim to carry it out. The Korean leader's sunshine policy has had mixed results, falling short of early hopes that Pyongyang would open up to the outside world and embark on domestic reforms.
"President Kim only has one year left in office and wants to leave a historical legacy including the sunshine policy," said Mr. Lee. "So he is working from a weakened hand compared to two years ago. This particular fact is recognized by the Bush administration. They do not want to publicly embarrass President Kim."
One South Korean newspaper columnist wrote recently that the upcoming summit would be strange, because Presidents Bush and Kim would most certainly shake hands and declare support for the sunshine policy, despite Mr. Bush's recent warning on North Korea.
Other media commentators say that Mr. Kim's displeasure doesn't matter since he will be out of office by this time next year. They note that the leading candidate to succeed Mr. Kim, Lee Hoi Chang, takes a harder line approach to North Korea that is more akin to the Bush administration's position.