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Many in South Korea, Japan Relieved by Bush Goal of Korean Peninsula Peace - 2002-02-22

Many people in South Korea and Japan, two Asian nations with the strongest ties to the United States, say they are relieved by President Bush's assurance that his goal on the divided Korean peninsula is peace, not war. But, there are also worries Washington's current policy on communist North Korea could create a dangerous stalemate in the region.

President Bush wrapped up a 40-hour visit to South Korea Wednesday, endorsing South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" of reaching out to North Korea. Mr. Bush also assured Seoul that the United States has no intention of invading North Korea.

North Korean expert Paik Hak-soon in Seoul says the president's speech eased fears among many South Koreans who believed the United States was contemplating an immediate military campaign against the North. Last month, President Mr. Bush's branded North Korea a part of an "axis of evil" and said that the United States would not allow the country to develop weapons of mass destruction. "Generally speaking, the atmosphere is much better and the people are relieved much more than before," says Mr. Paik. "He clearly supports South Korea's reconciliation policy toward North Korea and he made it very clear that he is seeking a peaceful resolution to the Korean problem, including North Korea's weapons of mass destruction problem."

But President Bush also made clear that he will not change his opinion of North Korea and its leader Kim Jong Il until the country becomes an open, transparent society. The president vowed Wednesday to defend South Korea from what he called a "despotic regime."

Mr. Paik predicts Washington's continuing negative view of Pyongyang will make it difficult for North Korea to return to the negotiating table anytime soon.

The Bush administration suspended talks more than a year ago to conduct a policy review. North Korea has since yet to respond to repeated calls by the United States to resume negotiations. "North Korea is being criticized as a despotic regime," says Mr. Paik. "That does not give them much incentive to come to a dialogue under the circumstances. So, there is some dark clouds over future negotiations."

If there is no dialogue, Mr. Paik fears tension could again escalate along the world's most heavily armed border, where more than 650-thousand South Korean soldiers and 37,000 U.S. troops are stationed. The two Koreas remain technically at war after the Korean War ended in 1953 in a truce and not a peace treaty. South Korea's bustling capital, Seoul, lies well within range of North Korean artillery.

Across the sea in Japan, there are similar fears of a North Korean attack. Japan's capital, Tokyo, lies within range of the North's Taepodong ballistic missiles.

Japan first became alarmed about North Korea's missile program in 1998, when Pyongyang test-fired a Taepodong missile and parts of it flew over the country. A year later, North Korea promised the United States it would not proceed with further testing of its long-range missiles while it was in talks with Washington.

Without the prospect of further dialogue with the United States, East Asia expert Kumao Kaneko in Tokyo says North Korea may decide to resume its missile program once more and target Japan, where some 47,000 U.S. troops are based. "The Taepodong, if it is ready to be launched, will be launched toward Japan first. They are not capable of delivering the Taepodong to North America for the time being," he says. "We are the ones who will be hit by North Korean missiles first."

In May 2001, North Korea unilaterally decided to extend its missile launch moratorium until 2003.

Mr. Kaneko says, as the end of the moratorium approaches, the whole region will be anxiously watching to see if the United States and North Korea can find a way past the rhetoric and begin serious negotiations.