South Koreans Worry About Bush's Policy Toward North

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Less than two weeks before President Bush's first official visit to Seoul, a number of South Korean lawmakers have expressed growing unease with what they see as a change in U.S. policy regarding North Korea.

Matters came to a head following Bush's recent description of North Korea - together with Iran and Iraq - as one of a terror-supporting "axis of evil" threatening world peace.

Several politicians, including members of President Kim Dae-jung's ruling party, have protested that the U.S. stance could negatively impact South Korea's security and economic stability.

In a rare move, six lawmakers Wednesday delivered a formal complaint to the U.S. Embassy. Their protest came as demonstrators outside the mission waved banners calling for peace and voicing opposition to Bush's Feb. 19-20 visit.

Deputy Prime Minister Jin Nyum separately called for Bush to take a "more productive course of action" toward Pyongyang to prevent a flight of foreign investment from South Korea, driven by concerns about security on the peninsula.

And the leader of the official opposition, Lee Hoi-chang, called on Kim and Bush to coordinate their policies on North Korea, to develop a common strategy to reduce the threat posed by Pyongyang's weapons of mass destruction program, and to promote peace on the peninsula.

U.S. officials have tried to allay the concerns, with both Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.S. ambassador to Seoul, Thomas Hubbard, saying the U.S. remained ready to talk to the North.

'No gulf'

The two Koreas are technically still at war, as the 1950-53 conflict between them ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.

Kim has pursued a "sunshine policy" of engagement with the communist North, an initiative which culminated in a historic summit with President Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in 2000.

Relations between North Korea and the U.S. also improved during the Clinton administration, but have deteriorated since, a situation widely attributed to a change of policy after Bush came to office.

But a leading Korean affairs expert argued Wednesday that U.S. policy has not shifted dramatically, and neither is there a gulf between Washington's policy toward the North on the one hand, and Seoul's policy toward its neighbor on the other.

"The president's State of the Union address and 'axis of evil' [statement] is a completely separate policy from the Bush North Korea policy," said Balbina Hwang, policy analyst for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation.

The "axis of evil" approach had to do with Washington's priority since the Sept. 11 attacks - fighting terrorism, she said by phone from Washington.

"If the attacks had not occurred on Sept. 11 and if North Korea was not a terrorist state then President Bush would not be identifying North Korea along with Iran and Iraq."

Hwang said too much was made of the supposed gulf between Bush's policy and the "sunshine policy" pursued by Kim in Seoul.

Many assumed that if the policies were not identical, there was a problem with the alliance, she said.

But these were two sovereign countries with different national priorities. For the U.S., the priority is terrorism right now. For South Korea the priority is addressing North Korea directly.

'U.S. policy not hard-line'

Hwang said the inclusion of North Korea in the "axis of evil" did not mean Bush's policy toward the country had been discarded or even changed.

That policy, as announced last June, was essentially in line with that of the previous administration, with some "nominal changes," including an emphasis on the reduction of conventional weapons by North Korea.

"South Koreans and Western media have characterized Bush's policy toward North Korea as hard-line. In fact if you look at the details there's nothing hard-line about this policy," she said.

"It's still a policy of engagement, but now stressing reciprocity or verification."

Hwang pointed out that North Korea had yet to honor commitments already made, not only to the U.S. but also to South Korea. These included commitments during the 2000 Pyongyang summit to pay a return visit to Seoul, to develop a joint economic zone, to work on a railroad linking the two Koreas and to allow ministerial-level meetings. An agreement to allow family reunification visits across the border had been kept, but subsequently put on hold.

"This is the kind of movement, or verification, that the U.S. is demanding. It needs to begin with promises already made, and from now on any engagement will be based on some sort of a response from North Korea," Hwang said.

"That, to me, does not sound hard-line at all. It sounds reasonable - more cautious, but not hard-line."

Hwang said the absolute priority for Bush when he visits Seoul will be to "convince and educate" the South Korean government and public about these misperceptions and ensure they "don't spiral out of control."

North Korea has been effective in its attempts to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington, she said.

A primary concern to both Bush and Kim will be to reach consensus on this point - that North Korea must not be allowed to split the alliance.

"Many South Koreans perceive the U.S. as being unilateral, and perceive statements in [Bush's] speech as somehow declaring war on North Korea."

Hwang said she doubted there would be any military action against North Korea unless it makes some provocative act. "It was really a point of the U.S. putting North Korea and the rest of the world on alert."

See also:
Bush's 'Axis Of Evil' Remarks Resonate In Korea, North And South (Jan. 30, 2002)
Analysts: Bush Backpedaling on 'Evil Axis' Rhetoric (6 Feb. 2002)

E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow