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Mixed U.S. signals roil South Korea

As he visits South Korea, President Bush could hardly find a more apt metaphor than a stop at the demilitarized zone where he will step into a minefield — literally and politically. By Kari Huus.
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As he visits South Korea, President Bush could hardly find a more apt metaphor than a stop at the demilitarized zone, where he will step into a minefield — literally and politically. So far, the administration’s strong — and some say inflammatory — comments about North Korea have confused important allies in Seoul, and prompted a stream of venom from the communist regime in Pyongyang.

From an American perspective, U.S. comments on North Korea are a mere sideshow to the larger war on terrorism. But South Koreans are deeply affected by U.S. policy. They peer across the border at heavily-armed North Korea, with which they are technically at war despite a truce that was signed to end the fighting in 1953. They also play host to 37,000 U.S. troops.

Observers in Seoul are hanging on every word of Bush’s summit with President Kim Dae-jung, hoping to get a clear picture of U.S. intentions. “A small movement on our side is perceived as an earthquake, so it is very disturbing to them not to have a clear policy,” says Robert Dujarric, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. “They need to know where the U.S. stands.”

The current administration of Kim and his supporters believe that unless the United States is supportive of South Korea’s “sunshine policy” of extending itself to the Pyongyang regime, the hard-won gains over the last few years will be lost. As an editorial in the Korea Times put it: “Bush holds the key to whether or not this budding hope of inter-Korean reconciliation would grow or prematurely wither.”

Thus the resurgence of protest in the wake of Bush’s recent comments designating North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq. While some veterans of the Korean War are marching in support of Bush and the U.S. presence more broadly, others are railing against the U.S. effort to sell F-15 fighter jets to South Korea, part of what seems like an effort by Washington to stoke the 5-decade old conflict.

Kim Dae-jung backers also worry that Bush’s antagonism to North Korea will further undermine Kim’s stature in the run-up to an election at a time when his popularity is already suffering.

Bush policy still evolving
Bush’s “axis of evil” comment in his State of the Union address was just the latest chapter in his administration’s evolving policy on the Korean issue.

When campaigning for the presidency, Bush criticized the approach of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who he felt had been far too indulgent of the North. Clinton had been largely in agreement with Kim Dae-jung, and attempted to woo

Pyongyang out of its isolationist shell. His approach culminated with a high-profile meeting between then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the normally reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.

In the end, talks on halting North Korean missile sales around the world failed to produce an agreement, so a much talked about trip to Pyongyang by Clinton himself never came to pass.

Bush took the opposite tack, saying he would review U.S. policy on North Korea, including the 1994 KEDO agreement, under which Pyongyang agreed to stop developing a nuclear plant that might have produced weapons-grade uranium in exchange for help building light-water reactors, which would provide power but no high-grade uranium.

At the time, experts pointed out that the United States was party to KEDO, also known as

Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, through a treaty with Japan and South Korea, so Bush couldn’t easily walk away from it legally. Nonetheless, it was a disturbing sign to the South, then still euphoric about its recent rapprochement with the North.

Rocky relations with Kim
After Bush’s election, Kim Dae-jung was among the first leaders to visit the new president, arriving on the White House doorstep in March. It went badly. The South Korean leader, who had recently won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts with the North, left without assurances that the United States would maintain the upbeat tone. The administration “showed contempt for Kim’s policy,” says Dujarric of the Hudson Institute.

About the time Bush was elected, Pyongyang started publicly rejecting the notion of talks and lambasting Bush as “trigger happy” — a “bellicose and heinous” president.

The mood has declined steadily as rhetoric on both sides has escalated. Now, in a riposte to its designation in the “axis of evil,” Pyongyang’s official news agency refers to the United States as the “empire of (the) devil” and says Bush’s accusations are tantamount to declaring war.

Interestingly, Bush’s review of Clinton’s policy concluded that the Clinton approach was not all bad, and the administration began suggesting that talks with North Korea restart. By this time, Pyongyang was not biting.

Now, Bush’s position is that North Korea is part of the “axis of evil” — responsible for arming rogue nations around the world, and trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. (It was not clear if he would repeat the controversial phrase on this trip.)

Meanwhile, his secretary of state, Colin Powell, has said the administration would be willing to talk to North Korea “anytime, anywhere, with no preconditions.”

Why stir the pot?
The Koreans are not alone in puzzling over the policy.

First there is a question of why Bush singled out North Korea at a time when there are more pressing conflicts to address.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, host of “Hardball,” recently wondered aloud if it was because it would put a non-Muslim country into the mix, proving that U.S. anti-terror policy was not anti-Muslim.

Another theory is that Bush is employing a Reaganesque approach. “The model is the U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s,” says Nicholas Eberstadt, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. “Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the evil empire, and also indicated he would talk to the Soviet leadership without conditions,” he says, adding: “The end result was fairly satisfactory from the U.S. point of view.”

The conspiracy theory in Seoul is that Bush made the controversial “axis of evil” comment to derail a possible North-South deal, out of worry that Kim would make an agreement that could undermine U.S. interests.

In fact, Kim is hardly on the edge of a breakthrough. On the contrary, his popularity has waned and pessimism has set in.

“The sunshine policy died a death of numerous wounds,” says Eberstadt. “The most serious ones were inflicted by North Korea,” which failed to produce tangible progress on its side. “The second set came from Korean domestic politics,” he says, adding that Bush’s skepticism gave it an additional push toward the grave.

Even so, many analysts believe Bush didn’t really mean to alienate South Korea so thoroughly with the comment, that in fact it was a misstep, and his administration is now engaged in damage control.

“My impression is that Asia policy experts in Washington … were not in favor of this, or were not informed,” says Dujarric. Like many others, he predicts that Bush will reiterate support for Kim and voice a willingness to talk to North Korea.

Even conservative South Korean politicians who are skeptical of Kim’s sunshine policy are hoping Bush’s trip will clarify and tone down the rhetoric, according to Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They all prefer a more subtle approach,” he writes. “One that takes (South Korean) concerns into account and does not increase the risk of conflict on the peninsula.”