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Bush's N. Korea Strategy Questioned


The United States' approach to North Korea was raised in all three stops of President Bush's Asia tour. But it figured most prominently in Seoul, where the president's earlier characterization of North Korea as part of an axis of evil had prompted criticism and fear. Analysts say Mr. Bush needed to calm nervous Koreans about U.S. intentions.

Did President Bush accomplish his goal - reassure South Korea of American support for President Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the North? Korea specialist Gordon Flake says he did. "In some ways, this trip was designed to allay South Korean fears, to downplay the perception of a split between Seoul and Washington, to strongly state his support for President Kim personally and for the sunshine policy," he said. "But at the same time, there was little expectation that he was going to seriously back away from his rhetoric toward North Korea and what he calls the facts in regards to North Korea. So, while there was little in the way of surprises, I think you would characterize it as a successful visit."

Mr. Flake, the executive director of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington, says President Bush went further than past U.S. leaders in expressing his concern for the welfare of the North Korean people. And he says that probably drew a sympathetic response from older South Koreans.

Yet there were noisy and sometimes violent protests during Mr. Bush's visit to Seoul, and some demonstrators blamed his harsh words about the North for heightening tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Korea analyst David Steinberg says President Bush did as well as could be expected on his visit, under what he calls very difficult circumstances that the president himself created. Professor Steinberg, the director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, says Mr. Bush's problems with Seoul began in March last year, when President Kim Dae Jung visited the White House and they articulated different approaches to North Korea. He says this week's visit did not resolve those differences. "Differences have been papered over," he said. "That was, I think, necessary diplomatically. But there are still very important differences in emphasis. And I think there is a growing lack of trust in the United States in South Korea that could have been avoided. The axis of evil remarks were, I believe, unnecessary and they were reiterated. And even though the United States does not want to have any aggressive action against North Korea, as President Bush indicated, still the feeling is that President Kim Dae Jung has been undercut in his own society by the United States. "

After their talks in Seoul, President Kim said there is no difference between his "Sunshine Policy" and President Bush's policy toward Pyongyang. Professor Steinberg calls that statement diplomatic maneuvering. He says both countries believe the North Korean regime is evil, but they disagree on how to achieve changes in the North - whether in terms of ending missile proliferation or improving the lives of the people. "President Kim says you do not do this by insulting the North Koreans or treating them harshly," he said. "You do it by what he calls the 'Sunshine Policy.' And President Bush has said 'We will meet anytime, anyplace.' But then after calling them an axis of evil, this makes it exceedingly difficult for the North Koreans in terms of their own internal prestige to take President Bush up on it."

Gordon Flake says that ever since South Korean President Kim went to Pyongyang for a summit in 2000, he has been trying to get North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to make a reciprocal visit to Seoul. But Mr. Flake says Kim Dae Jung is not able to point a finger of blame at Pyongyang for the current stalemate. "Because of the political dynamic in South Korea," said Gordon Flake "Kim Dae Jung just can't come out and say, 'Look the problem is in Pyongyang. Kim Jong Il hasn't kept his promise, he hasn't come south. The regime there is so stilted that it can't move.' Because if he were to say so publicly, that would be the death knoll of the 'Sunshine Policy,' as he has framed it, particularly in the recent months as he has desperately tried to get a reciprocal visit of Kim Jong Il to the south."

Gordon Flake and David Steinberg note this is a presidential election year in South Korea, and that could limit progress with North Korea. Mr. Flake says the United States will likely continue its strong rhetoric, but wait to see who the next South Korean president is before taking any provocative or conciliatory steps toward Pyongyang. Professor Steinberg agrees, saying the Bush administration has probably decided that Kim Dae Jung is a lame duck president and that it should wait to work with the next South Korean leader who comes to office next year.