Bush expected to keep engaging North Korea but to get tougher

SEOUL, South Korea - In early October, a top North Korean envoy toured the 18th-century mansion of George Washington in Mount Vernon, Va. Soon after, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright dined with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, the North's capital.

Such symbolic gestures of U.S.-North Korean rapprochement after decades of hostility are likely to be scarce in the early stages of the administration of President-elect Bush.

The Republican will preserve President Clinton's basic policy of engaging North Korea, but they may demand more proof from Pyongyang that it is serious about peacemaking, analysts said.

''I think we can expect a Korea and in particular a North Korea policy that to begin with insists upon much more reciprocity,'' said Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Communist, totalitarian North Korea is one of the world's poorest nations. Between 1994 and 1996, the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc trade partners plus a series of natural disasters at home led to widespread starvation that ended up killing more than 220,000 people.

The situation began to improve in 1998-99, thanks to better harvests and food aid from countries such as the United States. And in the past year, traditionally closed-off North Korea has made inroads in relations with the West and with South Korea, with which it has had an uneasy truce since the 1950-53 Korean War.

But wary of Pyongyang's military menace and its totalitarian control over its people, Washington and Seoul wonder about the motives for Kim Jong Il's overtures to the world.

Is he really intent on ending the conflict on the divided Korean peninsula? Or is he simply trying to guarantee his regime's survival by collecting foreign aid in exchange for a few conciliatory gestures?

South Korea has engaged in regular dialogue with North Korea since their leaders held a summit in June. But the military standoff along the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two countries remains intact.

Clinton is still said to be considering a trip to North Korea, which grew accustomed to dealing with his Democratic administration during his eight years in power.

Now Pyongyang officials must get to know a new set of Washington players who might be tougher on North Korea. They could include Richard Armitage, former assistant secretary of defense, and Paul Wolfowitz, former undersecretary of defense for policy.

''Washington may slow the speed and level of engagement with North Korea, depending on the North's response and reciprocity,'' said Kim Sung-han of the Institute for National Security and Foreign Affairs, a research center at the South Korean Foreign Ministry.

Despite the traditionally hawkish stance of Republicans, some differences with Democrats on North Korea policy may be only rhetorical. For example, Bush is unlikely to tamper with the numbers of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

''Neither side wants to go back to the old hostility,'' said Park Joon-young, a politics professor at Ewha Women's University in Seoul. ''You will still see the same big picture. But the procedure might be different.''

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, have said they do not expect changes in Washington's basic policy of reducing the threat of war on the Korean peninsula and engaging North Korea.

But Bush's support for a U.S. missile defense system could upset the North Koreans, who have demanded billions of dollars as a payoff in exchange for stopping missile exports.

Pyongyang has also said in talks with U.S. officials that in exchange for ending or constraining its domestic production of missiles, it would require international assistance in launching North Korean satellites.


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