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What Direction Will North Korea Take in Dialog With the South? - 2002-08-08

North and South Korea are to hold ministerial talks next week, August 12-14, in the first public high-level meeting between the two sides since last November. Analysts agree that North Korea is showing new signs of openness, but they disagree on whether that will lead to any real progress in the Korean dialogue this year.

There was much optimism two years ago when South Korean President Kim Dae Jung went to Pyongyang for an historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. There was hope the meeting would lead to more economic cooperation, particularly crucial for the North's failing industrial and agriculture infrastructure. The dialogue was also expected to expedite the construction of a railroad between the two sides of the divided peninsula, and lead to more reunions of family members separated since the Korean War.

However, the North-South dialogue slowed and eventually stalled last year. Analysts said that was at least partly because the Bush administration was reviewing its policy toward the North and did not seem keen to move forward. And then this year, President Bush called North Korea part of an "axis of evil" with Iran and Iraq.

Korea specialist Bill Drennan, at the United States Institute of Peace, said the North-South Korea dialogue is hostage to whatever happens between Washington and Pyongyang. "When all is said and done, the North Koreans to the extent they want to engage anybody, they want to engage the United States. The price of admission to Washington, they've come to learn, is at least the appearance of engaging Seoul," he said.

Leon Sigal, author of a book about negotiating with North Korea, said that used to be the case, but he said Pyongyang changed its approach last year. "In the past decade, they never had serious talks with the South, unless they knew the United States government was cooperating. By having a ministerial meeting last September, when they knew the Bush administration was not interested in serious engagement, the North really changed its strategy in a fundamental way. And we are seeing the playing out of that in time," he said.

Mr. Sigal, the director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York, said since the Pyongyang summit in 2000, North Korea has been consistent in wanting to reconcile with the South.

He said the North's apology to Seoul after a naval clash in the Yellow Sea in June shows that North Korea wants to move beyond distrust. In the past, Mr. Sigal said, if similar conflicts arose when North Korea was not interested in reconciliation, the tension disrupted whatever dialogue was underway. Now, he said the situation is different.

David Steinberg, the director of Asian Studies at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, agrees that both North Korea and President Kim Dae Jung in the South want to make progress. But Professor Steinberg said their motives are different.

"I think there's a reasonable chance that something will move forward because North Korea, in an unprecedented move, issued an apology for what happened in the Yellow Sea, Professor Steinberg said. "And that has not happened before. So, I think that indicates a seriousness of purpose in the case of North Korea, improving relations with the South, maybe not because they really want to, but because they really want to improve relations with the United States. And in order to do that, they have to improve relations with South Korea."

Professor Steinberg said what Kim Dae Jung probably wants to see most is a reciprocal visit to Seoul this year by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. South Korea holds presidential elections in December, and Kim Dae Jung, who has based his presidency on a policy of engagement with Pyongyang, is not allowed to run for another term in office. Mr. Steinberg said North Korea will probably wait to make any major concessions until after a new South Korean president is inaugurated next February.

Bill Drennan said he would be surprised if Kim Jong Il agreed to make a trip to Seoul before the end of Kim Dae Jung's term. But Mr. Drennan adds that Pyongyang has made eleventh hour miscalculations before, in particular, when the North agreed to stop its missile tests at the end of the Clinton presidency and hoped to win a trip by President Clinton to Pyongyang. That fell through, and Mr. Drennan says North Korea could be making a similar mistake this time.

"They've got President Kim Dae Jung in the South, the most progressive, the most non-threatening, the most welcoming president in the history of South Korea. And they've done nothing but stick their finger in his eye since the June 2000 summit in Pyongyang. They've almost gone out of their way to weaken him politically. They may be calculating that they can create some inordinately advantageous situation by waiting until the last six months of President Kim's term for Kim Jong Il to come south. I don't think the South Korean people are going to buy this," Mr. Drennan said.

Mr. Drennan said South Korea has acted like a suitor, looking for any opportunity to engage the North, an approach that has brought much criticism on Kim Dae Jung in the media and among politicians in Seoul. And Mr. Drennan said that has put Pyongyang in the driver's seat, in control of whatever progress will or will not be made in the North-South relationship.