KOREA: Despite Some Progress, Peace Process Faces New Roadblocks
By Tim Shorrock
WASHINGTON, Sep 21 — South and North Korean negotiators this week met for the first time since March and the two Koreas have just agreed to another round of family reunions next month, but progress toward reconciliation in the Korean peninsula faces new, serious roadblocks ahead.
While the resumption of bilateral talks in Seoul and the October series of reunions between divided families was a hopeful sign for many Koreans at a time of global crisis, a congruence of domestic and international factors — starting with the massive U.S. military and diplomatic response to the bloody attacks on New York and Washington on Sep. 11 — are bound to have an adverse impact on the peace and reconciliation process in Korea.
With the Bush administration already suspicious of North Korean intentions, many experts believe that talks between the two Koreas as well as negotiations between the United States and Pyongyang over missiles and other issues may be in a holding pattern for several years.
"Until this latest crisis, Korea was high on the U.S. security agenda, but it is definitely now on the backburner," said Dr Kyongsoo Lho, a specialist on military affairs at Seoul National University and a former adviser to the South Korean government.
Lho, who spoke at a forum here on Korea organised by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation on Sep. 19, is a prominent critic of Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of engagement with Pyongyang.
Kim's sunshine policy, which the former dissident has transformed into the keystone of his five-year administration, reached its zenith in June 2000, when he met with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. That was the first meeting between leaders of the two Koreas since separate regimes were established on the peninsula in 1948.
As millions of their citizens watched in awe on live television, the two Kims signed a historic declaration on Jun. 15 last year to "resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people".
They signed a four-point plan to develop mutual trust through economic development, cultural exchanges and other steps.
"It seemed for three days in the middle of June that somehow 50 years of suspicion and military standoff had finally come to an end," recalled Lho.
The summit was followed by visits between divided families and serious progress on the economic front, including an agreement to rebuild railroad ties between North and South.
The United States took advantage of the thaw to complete the normalisation process with North Korea, which began in 1994 with Pyongyang's agreement to end its Soviet-era nuclear power programme in return for international aid for a new energy system based on light-water reactors.
Just before leaving office early this year, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeline Albright reached a preliminary agreement under which North Korea would have stopped its production, testing and exports of ballistic missiles in exchange for full diplomatic relations with the United States and a resumption of normal trade ties.
All that remained to complete the agreement was language to allow the United States to verify North Korea's adherence to the agreement, which included complete dismantling of the missiles that some U.S. officials believe are capable of hitting U.S. targets.
But Clinton, concerned that he did not have domestic support and worried about the election chances of Vice President Al Gore, declined to make the final push that would have included a historic visit to Pyongyang by the U.S. president.
"They were much closer to a deal than anyone realises," Leon Sigal, a specialist on North Korean diplomacy, said in an interview. "But Clinton chickened out."
The election of George W Bush put a damper on the peace process. Bush and his security team, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are ardent supporters of missile defense and see North Korea as one of the "rogue states" such a system is designed to protect against.
The impact of Bush's policy on Korea became clear in March this year, when Bush met Kim Dae Jung at the White House and, contradicting statements by his own secretary of state, declared that he would not continue Clinton's policies of negotiating an end to Pyongyang's missile programme because of concerns with verification and trust.
The remarks stunned Kim and much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
"Bush's treatment of Kim Dae Jung was, to put it mildly, a disaster," said David Steinberg, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and a former U.S. diplomat, at the seminar here. In the wake of Kim's meeting with Bush, North Korea broke off its talks with the South.
Since then, President Bush and Secretary of State Collin Powell have agreed to restart talks with the North. Powell reiterated the policy again this week after meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Han Seung Soo, saying the U.S. government is a "strong supporter" of the sunshine policy and "prepared to engage with the North Koreans again at any time and place that they wish to engage without any preconditions".
But the Bush administration has also been floating proposals not included in previous negotiations, such as a demand for North Korea to pull back its conventional forces and massive artillery batteries from their current positions near the Demilitarized Zone.
It also remains split between hardliners, such as Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, who continue to describe the North as an unstable, rogue regime, and Powell and others who want to continue on the path of negotiation.
The confusing signals have reinforced Pyongyang's suspicions of the Bush administration and U.S. ties to the South.
Yet even without the U.S. missteps, support for Kim Dae Jung's sunshine policy has been greatly diminished in South Korea since the events of June 2000.
Conservatives in the opposition Grand National Party and within Kim's own ruling coalition have been criticising him for months, saying North Korea has given nothing in return and remains a dangerous military threat.
The dispute came to a head on Sep. 3, when United Liberal Democrats pulled out of their alliance with Kim's Millennium Democratic Party after forcing the resignation of Unification Minister Lim Dong Won, the architect of the sunshine policy. That action sparked North Korea's return to the talks, but the divisions inside the South remain.
Kim Dae Jung's five-year term expires at the end of 2002, and the period between now and the presidential elections in December 2002 will be dominated by politics. "This will be the defining election since the end of military rule," said Lho. As a result, he said, "South Korea may not be in position to engage (with the North) even if Washington wants to."
Selig Harrison, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars who has been to North Korea seven times since the early 1990s, said he was more hopeful than Lho "because of economics". Even if South Korea and the United States are not engaged in the peace process, he said, several key economic initiatives are moving forward that will promote stability in Korea and the Asia region in general.
They include the construction of an industrial park for some 800 South Korean companies in the northern border city of Kaesong and a gas pipeline that will carry natural gas from Siberia through North Korea to the South.
The focus is on economics because "military tensions will not be dealt with until the U.S. joins in the process," Harrison pointed out. "It is incorrect to underrate the potential for getting this economic process underway." (IPS/2001)