HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (March 23, 2001 – East-West Wire)---The United States and South Korea need to coordinate their policies toward North Korea, but that will require some "subtle diplomacy" on the part of the Bush administration, an East-West Center expert on U.S.-Korea relations said.

Any dispute between the two allies "definitely will hurt the relationship," said Choong Nam Kim, who served for almost a decade as an assistant to three South Korean presidents. "North Korea tries to exploit this kind of disagreement between Washington and Seoul. The U.S. needs some subtle diplomacy to fine-tune the policy toward North Korea."

He said the United States and South Korea should discuss such policy matters with Japan at a meeting of senior officials scheduled for Monday in Seoul. It will be the first time the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group has met since the waning days of the Clinton administration. "It's not a matter of whether or not to continue dialog with North Korea but how to do it," he said. "There's a clear difference between South Korea and the United States. The three countries must discuss and shorten their differences."

Earlier this month President Bush told South Korean President Kim Dae-jung that the United States would halt its negotiations with Pyongyang pending a review of its policy. The Clinton administration had followed South Korea's lead in opening relations with the North. Since Bush's statement, Pyongyang has canceled a round of negotiations with Seoul and turned down requests from four U.S. senators to visit North Korea, what Choong Nam Kim called examples of Pyongyang's increasing brinkmanship if the United States continues a harder policy toward the North.

The researcher said it's normal for a new administration to review important foreign policies before proceeding, and he said Bush's skepticism about North Korea was understandable. "There is no sign of fundamental change in Pyongyang yet. So far North Korea has been reluctant to deal with military and security matters. How to reduce tensions, how to improve confidence building between the two Korean militaries -- so far none of that has happened.

"North Korea's priority is survival of the regime. Its military strength includes weapons of mass destruction. It will be very difficult for the North to give up its military program and strategy."

While the U.S. national interest is focused on immediate threat and security issues, South Korea is promoting exchanges and cooperation in economic and social areas, hoping that such efforts will ultimately lead to peace and unification. But the East-West Center specialist pointed out that South Koreans are very divided on Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy." But while many maintain suspicious eyes toward the North, those most loyal to the president will likely criticize U.S. policy and anti-U.S. military feelings could build.

Since South Korean presidential elections are scheduled for late next year, and Kim Dae-jung cannot run again, he has limited time to develop North-South relations and will push hard for a second meeting between leaders of the two Koreas. But Choong Nam Kim said policies toward creating a peaceful Korean peninsula need to be gradual and well coordinated. He also said Kim Dae-jung should work hard to consolidate the support of his people for his policies toward the North.

Choong Nam Kim can be reached at 808-944-7372 or [email protected].

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