Bush wise to change his tone overseas

February 25, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON- Perhaps the most notable aspect of President Bush's stop in South Korea on his Asian trip last week was his refraining from a repetition there of his characterization of North Korea, Iraq and Iran as an "axis of evil."

In Seoul, where his earlier bellicose language riled the locals who have been waging an uphill effort to achieve reunification with North Korea, he was quick to reassure the two Koreas that he supports that objective.

Not only did he not repeat the "axis of evil" reference, Mr. Bush declared that he had "no intention of invading North Korea."

Instead, the president reiterated his backing of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine" policy for more open ties between the two Koreas, and direct talks between Mr. Bush and the Pyongyang regime.

The contrast between President Bush talking tough in Washington for a domestic audience solidly behind his war on terrorism and speaking in relatively conciliatory tones to Koreans on both sides of the half-century-old Demilitarized Zone is, in one sense, encouraging.

The conflicting styles indicate his awareness that it is an American president's responsibility in a dangerous world to know where and when he can be a cheerleader and where and when he has to be a diplomat.

Mr. Bush's blanket warning at home against his perceived "axis of evil" originally fueled consternation in Seoul that he failed see the distinctions among the three targeted regimes or appreciate South Korea's efforts to improve relations with its northern neighbor.

For all the animosity between the two Koreas, the desire in the South for reunification cannot be understated.

Five years ago, when I went to Seoul to speak with journalism students about American politics, a newspaperman from Germany was on the same program. I might well not have been there for all they cared about what I had to say compared with my German colleague's observations.

The students inundated him with questions about how reunification of East and West Germany had been achieved and what lessons they could apply to bringing about their own reunification. It was the same at a long breakfast with South Korean journalists.

Probably no event on the Korean peninsula in the last 50 years has had more significance for the people on both sides of the DMZ than the negotiated reunification of family members in South Korea last year.

According to Jooh Yeop Han, South Korea's minister for public affairs here, there is hope that another such family restoration may be allowed in a few months.

Therefore, any U.S. policy seen as threatening to better relations with North Korea is bound to be unpopular there.

In his visit, however, Mr. Bush did support the South Korean quest to break down barriers, much as President Ronald Reagan did for West Germany when he visited West Berlin in 1987 and called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down that wall" dividing the city.

Fifteen years later, Mr. Bush urged the North Korean regime to complete the railroad tracks joining the two Koreas that now run up to the DMZ on the South Korean side and stop there.

Nevertheless, the efforts at reconciliation in Korea underscore the inappropriateness of linking North Korea with Iran and Iraq in Mr. Bush's "axis."

There is no way now that Mr. Bush could make conciliatory comments in the closed domain of Saddam Hussein similar to what he said in South Korea.

Indeed, talk of using force to depose Mr. Hussein continues within the Bush administration, even in the face of public assurances that no plans are being made to do so.

We can expect, therefore, continued belligerent rhetoric from President Bush for domestic consumption as he maintains his position that the war on terrorism - its target now expanded to all weapons of mass destruction - must be a long-term, far-reaching enterprise.

At the same time, the president's trip to South Korea demonstrates the limits on his course of action in a world that demands the continued practice of diplomacy abroad and a consequent cooling there of the rhetoric that effectively fires up political support for him at home.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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