Bush Fumbles with Korean Policy

Posted January 1, 2001

Categories: Articles, Korea

Bush Fumbles with Korea Policy

George Bush is on the verge of making a big foreign policy blunder. Instead of running with the Clinton policy on North Korea, the Bush team appears to be bobbling the hand-off. At risk is not simply the slow process of detente between North Korea and the U.S. At their March 7 meeting, Bush and South Korean president Kim Dae Jung could not resolve key differences, leaving this key alliance too on shaky ground.

Developments on the Korean peninsula are one of the world’s few bright spots. After the landmark summit between the two Korean leaders in June 2000, relations between the two countries have continued to improve. There have been new economic agreements, three rounds of reunions for divided families, and preparations to re-link the train tracks between the two countries. North Korea continues to open up slowly to the outside world, establishing new diplomatic links and, with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s trip to Shanghai in January, exploring economic options.

The Clinton administration played an important role in this process. It negotiated the Agreed Framework in 1994 that ended North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for heavy fuel oil shipments and two light-water reactors. And, with North Korea adhering to a moratorium on missile tests, the Clinton administration nearly struck a deal that would have compensated North Korea for stopping its missile program. This “engagement policy” supported South Korea’s own attempts to reach out to the North.

While initially mouthing support for the Clinton policy, the Bush administration has clearly indicated that it wants more quo for its quid. The Bush team has announced that North Korea will have to jump through more difficult hoops on verifying the suspension of its missile program and even the placement of its conventional troops. They’re calling this approach “strict mutualism,” which sounds fair on the face of it. But given the economic and military might of the United States and the impoverished isolation of North Korea, the playing field is hardly level to begin with.

The Bush administration set the tone early when Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his Senate confirmation hearings, characterized Kim Jong Il as a “dictator.” During the recent meeting with Kim Dae Jung, Bush accused North Korea of not adhering to agreements. When pressed by journalists, Bush was unable to give details. North Korea has predictably bristled at the new hard line. US-North Korean relations could quickly degenerate into rhetorical one-upsmanship.

Instead of listening more carefully to its South Korean ally, the Bush team is busy twisting arms. In February, for instance, Colin Powell pressured a South Korean trade official to purchase Boeing F-15 fighters. The Bush administration, with close ties to the defense industry, wants South Korea to buy US weapon systems rather than those of Russia or France.

More disturbing is the emphasis on the high-tech military build-up. Despite continued doubts concerning feasibility and cost – as well as the hesitations of key allies – the Bush administration continues to make missile defense its strategic priority. In redrawing the Cold War line through East Asia, missile defense is accomplishing what communist ideology never did: create a North Korean, Chinese, and Russian alliance.

South Korea is also skeptical of missile defense. At the end of February, Kim Dae Jung and Vladimir Putin signed a surprising joint-communique in support of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which prevents the proliferation of national missile defense systems. While both the U.S. and South Korea have publicly taken pains to disguise the rift, South Korea is clearly concerned that the U.S. defense policy will endanger engagement with North Korea and unnecessarily irritate China.

Unification is the centerpiece of South Korean foreign policy. Recognizing that North Korea is at an economic low point, Kim Dae Jung has not insisted on the strict reciprocity that Bush is seeking. Engagement with North Korea is a slow, patient process. South Korea has crafted a long-term policy instead of seeking short-term gains.

It’s not too late for the Bush administration to alter its tone. A missile agreement with North Korea is within reach. Kim Dae Jung still has two more years in office before he too must hand over his North Korea policy to his successor. There is still time for President Bush to listen more carefully to the real experts on the Korean peninsula – the Koreans themselves.

Progressive Media Project, March 29, 2001

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