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Little to Gain by Trip to North Korea

November 22, 2000|JIM MANN | Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday

SEOUL — What's the hurry?

Suddenly, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and his aides seem beset with anxiety. They're worried that President Clinton won't make that lame-duck trip to North Korea for which they have been yearning. They fret that he'll leave office before setting foot in Pyongyang and that a new American president won't be ready to deal with North Korea.

And in the meantime--so the South Koreans fear--North Korean leader Kim Jong Il may turn nasty again, casting aside the friendly face he displayed when Kim Dae Jung visited Pyongyang in June.

"We may lose the momentum that has been created," Vice Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon said in an interview. "A new [U.S.] president would be busy forming his Cabinet and be too preoccupied with domestic political issues."

Kim Dae Jung conveyed similar sentiments last week in a meeting with Clinton in Brunei. The South Koreans are pushing, both in public and in private, for a Clinton sojourn to North Korea.

For their part, Clinton and his top foreign policy aides seem eager to make a December or early January visit to North Korea their last hurrah.

Quietly, U.S. and North Korean officials have been trying to nail down a missile deal in which North Korea would abandon testing, production or export of long-range missiles in exchange for a new relationship with the U.S.

American officials are pressing for details and trying to close loopholes: Would a North Korean promise to stop exporting missiles apply only to future contracts, or to existing contracts too? Would the deal end North Korean exports of missile technology as well as missiles?

These administration efforts are commendable. Yet they still beg the question of why, even if a reasonable missile deal can be achieved, it needs to be accompanied by something as extraordinary as a visit to Pyongyang by a president who is in his final weeks on the job. Why can't the deal be signed by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright or National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger?

A presidential visit is a big step. It conveys a much greater degree of acceptance and legitimacy to a regime than does a trip by lower-level officials.

Clinton visited Vietnam last week. And so, on the surface, it might seem fair to ask, why not North Korea too?

But there are important differences. Clinton visited Vietnam a full five years after the U.S. established diplomatic relations and then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher broke the ice with a visit. America has no diplomatic ties with North Korea, and Albright made her first visit there less than a month ago.

There's little precedent for such a foreign policy venture by a lame duck. Usually, American presidents spend their last weeks in office at home, preparing for a new administration to take over.

Lame-duck President Reagan carried out some summit diplomacy with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in December 1988. But Reagan was dealing with a leader he had met four times before. The meetings were held in the United States, and the president-elect (then-Vice President George Bush) was at Reagan's side.

In South Korea, proponents of Kim Dae Jung's sunshine policy of engaging North Korea say it will endure because it's the only approach that can work.

"What's the alternative? Containment? That's not a very good policy," asserts Tae Hwan Kwak, president of the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-funded research institute.

Yet what the overly nervous South Koreans fail to realize is that the reverse is also true of Kim Jong Il: He has to deal with South Korea, the United States and Japan, because he has no alternative.

Suppose Kim Jong Il gets angry because Clinton doesn't visit. What could he do? Go back to launching military raids on the South and firing missiles over Japan, thereby ruining any chance of getting the economic help that North Korea needs to survive?

In short, if Kim Jong Il is as rational a leader as he is now being portrayed, he'll keep on dealing with the U.S., with or without a Clinton trip. (If he's not rational, we shouldn't be courting him.)

The hazards of a Clinton visit become clear when you think about what might happen if he does go to Pyongyang during his final days in office.

Kim Jong Il won't want to talk merely about a missile deal. Inevitably, he'll want to ask about the future. What will happen to U.S. troops on the Korea Peninsula? What kind of economic aid is America prepared to offer?

At that point, there are three possibilities--all of which create problems for U.S. foreign policy. First, Clinton might say he can't answer, leaving unclear what he's doing in Pyongyang anyway.

Or he'll say, "Hold on, let me call President-elect [Bush or Gore]," and try to get the imprimatur of an incoming president who doesn't yet have a Cabinet or an Asia policy. Or, finally, Clinton will answer Kim Jong Il's questions on his own, thus making commitments that his successor may not be prepared to honor.

Any way you look at it, the North Korea trip is a bad idea.

Clinton's lame-duck activism--together with the election deadlock--is contributing to a larger problem: This year, we don't have an orderly transfer of presidential power.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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