Dealing with both Koreas

Slowdown: Bush's reticence is understandable, but talks with North and support of South needed.

March 14, 2001

PRESIDENT BUSH should maintain his predecessor's constructive engagement with North Korea.

This would probe the possibilities of arms control aimed at taking that country out of the nuclear bomb and missile business. It would support the efforts at reconciliation made by President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea.

Mr. Bush is right to be skeptical of North Korea and to insist that any arms reduction agreement include airtight verification. But it would be wrong to call off talks for fear they might succeed and demolish a rationale for U.S. national missile defense.

After his meeting with Mr. Kim last week, Mr. Bush left himself open to that accusation. He was not on the same page as his South Korean counterpart. His insistence that he is not resuming the Clinton administration's talks any time soon contradicted what Secretary of State Colin Powell said the previous day.

North Korea's cancellation of Cabinet-level talks with South Korea, hours before they were to begin yesterday, was a reaction. That country's reclusive ruler, Kim Jong Il, cannot feed his people and really needs U.S. and South Korean help. But causing turmoil is one thing he can accomplish if given the incentive.

Mr. Powell last week told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration would add concerns about North Korea's "huge army" along the Demilitarized Zone to discussions about missiles. Fair enough.

But he faced the first real skepticism from Democratic senators on Bush administration foreign policy. They believe that a verifiable end to the North Korean missile threat is a goal worth pursuing.

The Bush administration is entitled to review Korea policy before resuming it. A brief hiatus in negotiations is not a bad thing.

But a strong understanding with South Korea on security issues should underlie everything else. It seems, instead, to have been undermined.

Support for Kim Dae Jung's opening to the North should be visible. It is not.

When arms control possibilities are eventually explored with North Korea, verification would have to be at the heart of any understanding. That is a large part of what the discussions would be about.

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