In Seoul, watchword on North is patience

Posted in Koreas | 16-Mar-05 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon talks to the reporters during a press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul Wednesday, March 16, 2005.

SEOUL An interview with the South Korean foreign minister, Ban Ki Moon, suggests that the Bush administration's determined push to replace dictatorships with free societies faces a long, slow grind on the Korean Peninsula.

Ban, 61, said it was important that the United States show "some flexibility and sometimes creativity" in confronting a belligerent North Korean state that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has described as "an outpost of tyranny." In a 70-minute conversation, he spoke repeatedly of "cooperation" and "reconciliation" with North Korea, but shunned any suggestion of confrontation.

"Unification is an ardent aspiration of all 70 million Korean people," he said, referring to the combined population of the peninsula. "But however ardent and however important unification may be, at this time, at present, we should take unification as our long-term goal. Now, our priority should be the maintenance of peace and stability."

Asked if he expected to see unification in the next decade, he added: "Personally, I don't think so."

Ban was speaking on the eve of Rice's first visit to Seoul as secretary of state and at a time when six-party talks intended to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program are stalled. On Feb. 10, North Korea declared that it had nuclear weapons and said it had no further interest in the talks.

The regime of Kim Jong Il, as impenetrable as it is unpredictable, has suggested that the climate for a resumption of talks would be improved if Rice disavowed her outpost-of-tyranny label. She has declined, noting that it is an honest description, and the Bush administration this month nominated as United Nations ambassador a man, John Bolton, whom North Korea has dismissed as "human scum."

So the climate for Rice's Korean visit, beginning Saturday, is scarcely auspicious. Still, Ban said he believed that the secretary of state's presence could "improve momentum" toward a resumption of talks, despite what he called the "deeply rooted mistrust" between North Korea and the United States.

Asked to be more specific about what the Bush administration might do, Ban declined, apart from suggesting that the United States could have "more substantial and more direct talks" with North Korea within the six-party framework. North Korea wants bilateral discussions with America.

Ban noted that all parties to the talks - Japan, Russia, China, the United States and South Korea - agreed that if North Korea were prepared to abandon its nuclear program, it would gain extensive economic assistance, possibly including energy.

"North Korea should come back to the dialogue table and sit down before we discuss carrots," he said, adding that it had the opportunity to "become a responsible member of the international community" and be helped in joining "international institutions and other organizations from which they could benefit economically." That may seem a far-fetched vision for a hermit state with a Stalinist personality cult bent on the development of nuclear weapons as the best guarantee of survival in a world where Stalinism has gone out of style and where even Saudi Arabia has begun to concede that democracy may have merits.

But the South Korean government of President Roh Moo Hyun has embraced gradualism. It contends that engagement - the former "sunshine policy" recast as the "peace and prosperity policy" - will eventually prize North Korea open, convince it of the folly of making nuclear weapons, and propel an engagement with the world that may just lead to the crumbling of the system.

Libya is cited as an example of a country persuaded through diplomacy to abandon a nuclear program, and China as an illustration of a closed system that has opened to the world. So why should Kim Jong Il not see the light? Perhaps because he knows that any real opening would spell the collapse of a system of which isolation and fear are the glue.

What are not cited here in government circles are Ronald Reagan's evil-empire approach to totalitarianism and Bush's axis-of-evil response to the Sept. 11 attacks. It often seems South Korea's hard-earned prosperity counts more than the freedom of 22 million Koreans in the North.

Ban said that South Korea would face an "immense and enormous heavy burden from a sudden collapse of the North." The country did "not want to see such sudden changes on the Korean Peninsula." He continued: "We must try to manage the security threat from the North to make sure of our economic development." That development, over the past four decades, has been extraordinary, propelling South Korea into the dozen largest global economies, and the presence of more than 10,000 North Korean artillery pieces with Seoul in their range, not to mention a possible handful of crude nuclear devices, does concentrate the mind.

But just why diplomatic suasion alone should persuade a North Korean regime that has been predictable only in its unpredictability to follow a rational course at this stage is hard to discern.

It is particularly hard because the country with perhaps the most leverage over North Korea - China - may not share America's objectives for the Korean Peninsula. Whereas China favors a two-state status quo without nuclear weapons, the Bush administration would like to see Kim Jong Il fall. This difference gives North Korea margin for maneuver.

North Korea also knows that the South wants stability at all costs. For the majority of South Koreans, war is anathema. The Feb. 10 declaration on nuclear weapons has cost Pyongyang nothing in terms of South Korean economic aid or a rethinking of new South Korean industrial projects at Gaeseong in the North.

Ban suggested "very much patience" was needed. "At this time, we are experiencing stalemate between South and North," he said. "But it is a temporary situation. It cannot be forever this way. The stakes are much greater for North Korea if they continue this kind of stalemate."

That may be. But logic is not the strong point in Pyongyang. And even this more circumspect second Bush administration may find the boundless patience preached in the South unacceptable in the end.