South Korea's new president Roh Moo-Hyun begins a week-long visit to the United States Sunday and is scheduled to meet with President Bush at the White House on Wednesday. Instead of the usual summit that highlights the positive aspects in a relationship, this one will focus on the North Korean nuclear crisis.
South Korean and U.S. officials have taken great efforts to make sure this summit does not repeat what some analysts say were the mistakes of the March, 2001 summit between President Bush and former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
That meeting occurred two months into the new U.S. administration, after Mr. Bush had decided not to continue the dialogue with North Korea begun by the Clinton administration and to review U.S. policy toward Pyongyang. Kim Dae-jung, whose sunshine policy promoted engagement with the North, had cool meetings in Washington and went home to criticism and embarrassment.
"The summit more than two years ago between President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea and President Bush... was a disaster," said Colonel Bill Taylor, a specialist on international security issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "President Kim Dae-jung himself told me so, he's been a personal friend for years. This one's got to be handled much differently. Our preparations have to be far better. We need to understand that this new president Roh Moo Hyun comes as a friend.
Professor Samuel Kim, who teaches Korean foreign relations at Columbia University in New York, says a lot of advance work has been done to make sure this summit goes smoothly. And he expects that on the surface it will. But Professor Kim says the meeting between Mr. Bush and Mr. Roh comes at a difficult time in U.S.-South Korean relations.
Normally a summit is to showcase the good side of a relationship between two countries," he said. "But this summit is remarkable in the sense that it is completely dominated by the twin security dilemmas, one has to do with formulating some sort of common approach to North Korea's nuclear issue, and the other, of course, the seriously strained security relationship between the United States and South Korea."
Professor Kim expects the two presidents will issue a statement that highlights points of agreement in general terms. Specifically, he says they will likely say they both want a non-nuclear North Korea and want to resolve the issue in a peaceful way. But Professor Kim says their statement will likely leave out any details of how to do that.
Colonel Taylor says it is crucial for the United States and South Korea to agree on a common approach to the North Korea nuclear problem. But he says coming to that kind of statement will be difficult because there are even disagreements within the Bush administration on how to handle North Korea. And Colonel Taylor says the president's National Security Council has been meeting this week to try to make some decisions.
"The United States, within its own National Security Council, is going to try to find a way to do two things: one, talk with North Korea but we want it in a multilateral context... and at the same time, for the United States with its allies in the region to turn up the pressure on North Korea to stop it from its illicit trade activities, in drugs, and in counterfeit money and in sales of nuclear missile technology and missiles abroad to countries like Iran, Libya, and others," he said.
Colonel Taylor says such a dual approach, talks with, and pressure on Pyongyang, may satisfy South Korea's desire to pursue diplomacy without sanctions or other action that might provoke a disastrous military conflict.
The United States, North Korea and China held talks last month in Beijing. U.S. officials say that during that meeting the North claimed to have nuclear weapons and that it has been reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to make more weapons. The North also presented a list of political and economic concessions it wants from Washington in exchange for dismantling its nuclear program.
The United States says it is reviewing Pyongyang's proposals with its allies in Seoul and Tokyo. Washington's position is that the North Korean nuclear program is a regional problem and should be resolved through multilateral talks. The meeting with China was a first step. President Bush and President Roh are likely to discuss how and when South Korea should be included in the process.
Colonel Taylor says Seoul should be included in any future talks, but he says the North may want more concessions just to let the South at the table.
Professor Kim says South Korea's participation can be phased in later. "I know that it's a big domestic problem in South Korea, that is, Seoul being excluded from these talks," he said. "But that's domestic politics that President Roh can handle. I think what [they] should be most concerned about is to try to find best possible preliminary approach involving three parties, Beijing, Washington and Pyongyang. And the next step, or maybe the third step, Japan, South Korea and possibly Russia can be brought in."
Professor Kim says the trilateral talks among Washington, Pyongyang and Beijing are already complicated enough, and it would not make sense to try to squeeze more parties into the early round of talks.