South Koreans hope Bush eases off harsh words

Tuesday, February 19, 2002

SEOUL, South Korea -- At their first meeting a year ago, President Bush embarrassed South Korean President Kim Dae-jung when he told reporters he was skeptical about North Korea.

Many people here interpreted the remarks in Washington as criticism of the pace and scope of Kim's "sunshine" policy of trying to engage his communist neighbor with food aid and other incentives.

Now many South Koreans wonder whether more awkwardness awaits Bush's arrival Tuesday after his painting of North Korea as part of an "axis of evil."

"We should not put the safety of 70 million Koreans at risk of war," Kim said last week. "Efforts should be made to avoid the creation of a war atmosphere by promoting reconciliation with North Korea."

While Bush has defined North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, as adversaries in the global war on terrorism, South Korea is eager for Washington to use conciliatory language that will draw the regime in Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. Both countries have been technically at war under an armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

Contacts at standstill

Dialogue anytime soon seems unlikely, however. North Korea called Bush's statement a virtual declaration of war.

U.S.-North Korean tension in the past year helped bring official inter-Korean contacts to a standstill. The freeze followed a summit in June 2000 at which Kim and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, had agreed to seek reconciliation.

South Korea's "sunshine" approach helped win Kim Dae-jung the Nobel Peace Prize, but the policy has faced intensifying criticism that it is too soft on North Korea. Washington supports it, but South Korean officials acknowledge the two allies differ over how generous the policy should be.

South Korea's presidential national security adviser, Yim Sung-joon, said the Bush-Kim meeting will reaffirm the allies' tight security alliance and the importance of dialogue with North Korea to resolve problems.

Despite Bush's tough words, Secretary of State Colin Powell says the United States is ready to negotiate with North Korea at the time and place of its choosing.

Washington wants to curb North Korea's development of missiles and weapons of mass destruction and cut the number of its troops near the border with South Korea. Those goals became all the more pressing after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The United States keeps 37,000 military personnel in South Korea as a deterrent against attack from the North.

Implicated in '87 bombing

North Korea is on a U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism. It is believed to harbor four Japanese Red Army terrorists who hijacked a Japan Airlines plane and flew it to the North in 1970, but North Korea itself has not been implicated in any terrorist act since the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner near Myanmar that killed all 115 people on board.

Without elaborating, Kim Dae-jung said at a New Year's news conference that he thought the United States should make a gesture that would allow North Korea to engage in "face-saving" as a prelude to talks.

But U.S. Ambassador Thomas C. Hubbard said later that Americans "don't have the concept of face. We're much more pragmatic."

Kim Sung-han, a researcher at South Korea's state-financed Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, said the United States had backed North Korea into a corner, allowing it little option but to escalate its belligerent rhetoric.

"It wants dialogue with the U.S., but it has few cards to play with except hard-line," he said.

But Nicholas Eberstadt, a senior researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, an independent think tank in Washington, said the North had failed to respond to South Korea's aid shipments and other acts of generosity.

"Historically, peace has never been achieved through dealing with a regime like North Korea," Eberstadt said.

Many analysts think North Korea also may be reluctant to deal with a South Korean president whose popularity is waning with just one year left in his term.

The North's media have denounced Lee Hoi-chang, a South Korean opposition leader who is expected to be a front-runner in the presidential election later this year. Lee has criticized the "sunshine" policy as too lenient toward North Korea, saying it has done little in return.

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