The uses of carrots and sticks

The Koreas: "Sunshine" from the South is succeeding with the North more than Bush's tough talk.

April 01, 2002

THE SURPRISE announcement last week that the two Koreas plan to resume stalled reconciliation talks is unquestionably good news. It's also positive testimony for South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's 2-year-old "sunshine" policy of engaging the collapsing vestige of Cold War communism across the 38th parallel.

Much less certain is whether U.S. policy on North Korea, which has taken a decidedly harder line under the Bush administration, is helping to prevent the divided peninsula's ultimate nightmare: North Korea -- starving, isolated, threatened -- launching nuclear missiles at Seoul, Japan or even Alaska or Hawaii.

In his State of the Union address this year, Mr. Bush included the North in his "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran. He used the same charged language during his February visit to the South, prompting the North to call him a "politically backward child." Some analysts likened this venom to the run-up to the last high point in U.S.-North Korea tensions in 1994.

The real test of the administration's tough talk is whether it will bring the North back to another broken set of talks, that with the United States involving missiles. In the short term, Mr. Bush's rhetoric posed a major obstacle for Mr. Kim -- facing internal critics and an unpredictable partner to the North -- in moving toward reconciliation, however slowly.

Most basically, last week's positive turn is a barter deal. North Korea gets food, fertilizer and tourists (hard currency). Mr. Kim, a lame duck trying to help his party in fall elections, gets affirmation of policies that won him the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize. The South also may get relative calm when the World Cup, the world's most important sports event, comes to Seoul this May.

Driving reconciliation is Koreans' half century of separation. In the South, millions trace their families to the North. More than 100,000 are on a waiting list to be reunited; only 3,500 have done so. Just south of the heavily guarded border, a rail station -- where Mr. Bush went to pressure the North -- is empty; to the north are miles of rusted track. The clock ticks, generations pass, and some of the emotional basis for reuniting wanes.

Time is also running out, in 2003, on a historic agreement brokered by former President Carter to head off the 1994 clash. The North agreed to an internationally monitored nuclear freeze in exchange for fuel oil and two power reactors that can't be diverted to military ends. But unless the North also begins to give details on its unaccounted-for plutonium -- believed enough for one or two warheads -- a U.S.-led consortium may stop building those reactors.

In 2003, the North's voluntary moratorium on flight-testing of its long-range missiles also will expire. In 1998, the North fired one over Japan into the Pacific; now analysts believe it could hit parts of the United States. Despite U.S. pressures, the North sells missiles and related technology to such clients as Iran, earning as much as $1 billion a year for the bankrupt regime.

The wild card in all this is the North's "dear leader," Kim Jong Il, history's only hereditary communist successor. The son of North Korea's founding dictator, "great leader" Kim Il Sung, he was long considered a dangerous screwball. With engagement, he's been cast -- particularly by the South -- as more rational.

And in the last few years, particularly with the Clinton administration, he's signaled the North's willingness to trade concessions for foreign aid -- reportedly coming close to a deal on missiles just before Mr. Clinton left office in 2000.

Since then, the North and the United States have not met to talk about missiles.

The Bush administration needs to induce the North back to the bargaining table on weapons issues -- and the United States needs to get back to actively walking the North through a progression of steps toward opening its society and modernizing its anachronistic economy.

The North announced last week a new policy of "adjusting" its "economic foundations" to open the country to more trade, joint ventures and economic cooperation. But managing the evolution of this ugly regime through a controlled collapse is a long-term proposition, involving negotiations on multiple fronts and a long chain of carrots and sticks.

For now, the carrots in Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine" policy have returned the North to one important bargaining table. The big question is whether the Bush administration's stick will bring the North back to another.

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