SEOULEarly progress in dialogue with North Korea is crucial to U.S. interests in
Northeast Asia. But as the possibility of talks returns, it is vital to
understand not just the difficulties they face over strategic arms but the
interlinkages with South Korean politics and the consequences of delay for U.S.
influence in the region.
President George W. Bush's decision to
resume dialogue has been warmly received, not least by those who advised his
father on Korea. However, inclusion of conventional military deployments in the
list of topics has not only drawn predictable flak from Pyongyang but could
complicate the problems of President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea in maintaining
support for his "sunshine" policy of engagement with the North.
Previously this was an issue to be dealt
with in North-South talks while the United States addressed nuclear verification
and missile development and sales.
For the South, conventional weapons is
third in importance after family reunions and economic cooperation. Progress on
those issues was disappointing even before being halted pending the Bush policy
review but it was not negligible and some of the spirit of the June 2000 meeting
of Kim Dae Jung with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, still lives.
Slow progress was not just the fault of
northern paranoia. The South has been dragging its feet on economic assistance,
such as the North's request for power. The money thus far provided to the North
runs to only a few hundred million dollars which is small change for this
economy but is criticized due to a perceived absence of Northern reciprocity.
Kim Dae Jung's lack of command of Parliament limits his ability to offer
financial carrots. His power has been waning and as his term has only 18 months
to run he could soon become a lame-duck president.
Unless there is major progress this year,
the approach of elections in 2002 and the likelihood of victory of an opposition
more skeptical of the North – but with no real alternative to dialogue – would
further delay détente.
That explains why Kim Dae is so focused
on achieving a return visit from Kim Jong Il this year, which would lead to more
visits, more aid and perhaps even initial discussions on conventional arms.
There are plenty of other signs that the
North is moving towards further opening: rapid advances in its dealings with the
European Union, more students being sent overseas, Kim Jong Il's visit to
Shanghai, China's model of development. The drought now afflicting the Korean
peninsula may make him even more desperate for money.
But a visit to the South is also unlikely
without some progress in talks with the United States. Pyongyang has always
given these precedence over its dealings with Seoul. The North's dealings with
Japan are similarly dependent. Japan has huge potential to help but will only
follow Washington and Seoul.
Some argue that the United States should
be in no hurry to offer anything because time is not on Pyongyang's side. Some
also feel that Pyongyang is a good bogeyman to have around while the missile
defense issue is being debated. Others suggest it will take time for this
administration to grow out of knee-jerk reversals of President Bill Clinton's
However, delay has several dangers. It
will further improve China's claim to be the real peacemaker in the region. By
doing so it may push Seoul, already critical of the missile shield, closer to
Beijing. It will give more space to Russia to stake its claim to influence in
Korea. It will strengthen the arguments of those who think peace will be
guaranteed by a balance of power rather than the dominance of U.S. power.
Delay will raise the level of
anti-Americanism in a South Korea always quick to blame others. The older
generation, most skeptical of Pyongyang, is mostly pro-American, while the
younger one is prey to the canard that the United States wants to maintain its
military presence by keeping Korea divided.
Without more positive evidence of Bush
support for the sunshine policy by flexibility toward Pyongyang, South Korea may
lack the consensus to take more risks and spend more money. Seoul and Washington
need closer cooperation if the momentum for the détente they both need is to be