San Jose Mercury News 

Sunday Perspective  

 “Axis Of Evil” Comment Wins Few Friends In The Koreas: Reconciliation Between North and South Slows Down as a Result 


When President Bush arrives in Seoul on Tuesday for the second stop on his Asia tour, he will be stepping into an unpleasantly tense scene. His official visits to Tokyo and Beijing are expected to be perfunctory shows of diplomacy. In Seoul, however, the leader of the free world must face the fallout from his State of the Union address, in which he branded North Korea part of an ``axis of evil'' that included Iran and Iraq. 

The remark, presumably aimed at putting pressure on Kim Jong Il's neo-Stalinist regime on the issues of missile sales and nuclear weapons development, had the counterproductive effect of provoking North Korea's intense paranoia about hostile U.S. military intentions. It also came as a devastating blow to the host of Bush's state visit, South Korean leader Kim Dae Jung, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has made a policy of reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula a centerpiece of his presidency. 

Bush's unequivocal message that the Cold War relic of the divided Korean Peninsula was now a theater in anti-terror war came as a complete surprise to South Korean officials, who hadn't been briefed on the matter by the White House. 

Kim's Cabinet ministers prepared for the Bush visit with panicky phone calls last week to their counterparts in Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, seeking ways to smooth over the controversy, according to Korean press reports. Ideas included sending a special envoy to Pyongyang to cool tempers in the North Korean capital. 

Thursday, Rice told reporters in Washington that the United States remained interested in dialogue with North Korea so long as it is focused on ``specific issues.'' But she paired that with an unambiguous defense of the president's harsh rhetoric. 

``I think it's very clear why North Korea is a part of the axis of evil,'' Rice said. ``These are repressive, closed regimes that are trying aggressively to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and in the case of the North Koreans, spreading technologies around the world. The North Koreans got on the list the honest way.'' 

The Bush administration, however, has been less than consistent in its approach to North Korea. When President Kim of South Korea visited the White House in March, he was deeply embarrassed by Bush's public cold shoulder to his ``sunshine policy'' of engagement with the North. Secretary Powell had, however, backed Kim's opening to the North and later, after a policy review, announced the United States was ready to resume talks with Pyongyang.

President Bush is likely to reassert during his visit U.S. willingness to talk, though on America's own terms. But the damage already done to Kim and to engagement with the North may be hard to reverse. 

Reunions on hold 

In Southern California's populous Korean-American community, a group of churches that began sending food, clothing and medicine to drought-stricken North Korea several years ago is now sponsoring a nationwide program to reunite U.S. citizens with long-lost relatives through visits to North Korea. The first three families had been stranded in Beijing for a week at the time of this writing, their visas held up by Pyongyang authorities because of the diplomatic flap, said Heemin Park, chairman of the Korea Sharing Movement. ``Dealing with North Korea is very sensitive,'' Park said. 

Pyongyang's edgy reaction to the Bush statement is a matter of deep concern in the Korean-American community, said U.S.-born Frank Aum, external affairs director for the Korean American Coalition in Los Angeles. 

``As a Korean-American, I'm personally disappointed and frustrated with what's happening,'' said Aum. ``President Kim worked so hard on his engagement policy, with President Clinton's support, and it looked like it was paying dividends.'' 

Han Park, a political-science professor at the University of Georgia, said Bush's remarks had further weakened the South Korean president, who is facing rising challenges to his rule.

``Kim has every reason to be upset with Bush's statement,'' Park said. ``He's nearing the end of his term, and his party did badly in recent local elections. His policy of engaging North Korea is all he has left.''

 Park, a U.S. citizen, is a frequent traveler to Pyongyang, and said he has tried to mollify his North Korean contacts by explaining that Bush's remark was political hyperbole aimed for domestic consumption, and not a serious threat of aggressive military action. 

``The Bush administration needs a terrorism threat from North Korea to build public support and justify its missile-defense system,'' Park said. ``This point has to be conveyed to Pyongyang to calm their nerves, and the U.S. government can't say that.'' 

Whether or not Park's speculation is correct, the White House has made no secret of its disdain for the Clinton administration's policy of engagement with Pyongyang. 

U.S. strikes deal 

Under Clinton, U.S. officials negotiated a landmark agreement in 1994 that required North Korea to shut down a nuclear breeder-reactor program that produced weapons-grade plutonium at secret facilities in Yongbyon and Taechon, and allow international inspections. In exchange, the United States would supply the country with a 500,000 tons of oil every year to meet its energy needs, and South Korea and Japan would collaborate on a project to build two light-water reactors as a long-term solution. 

North Korea, meanwhile, is suspected of having collected enough plutonium for at least one bomb, and it has conducted tests of homegrown ballistic missiles with sufficient range to strike all of South Korea and parts of Japan -- and possibly the U.S. mainland -- with limited accuracy.

North Korea proclaimed a voluntary three-year moratorium on missile testing in 2000 and entered into negotiations with the Clinton administration to address demands that it stop the sale of its missile technology to countries in the Middle East -- an important source of hard currency for its failing economy. The two sides discussed compensating North Korea economically for the loss of that missile-sale income. 

It was those missile negotiations, near fruition at the end of 2000, that Bush decided to scuttle in favor a taking a hard-nosed approach to North Korea and its potential for targeting the United States and its allies with weapons of mass destruction. 

Robert Scalapino, a prominent East Asia scholar at the University of California-Berkeley, expressed dismay over the Bush administration's reversal of policy in a speech last week at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco. 

``It's regrettable that inflammatory language is used that makes dialogue difficult,'' Scalapino told his audience.

 He had been organizing a high-level delegation of four former U.S. ambassadors in South Korea to visit Pyongyang this month. But North Korean officials froze the visit after Bush's State of the Union address. 

As Scalapino and others acknowledge, there is little doubt that North Korea practiced state-sponsored terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s. North Korea had its fingerprints all over the bomb blast in Rangoon, Burma, in October 1983 that killed 21 people, including three South Korean Cabinet ministers, and the downing of a South Korean airliner in November 1987 that killed all 115 people aboard, which haunted the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games with security concerns.

Seoul's intelligence agency has maintained that current North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il himself had a role in planning these and other acts of terrorism. 

Terrorism reined in 

But the eccentric Kim, who formally succeeded his deified father, Kim Il Sung, on his death in 1994, has kept his country more or less free from allegations of terrorism for some 15 years. The younger Kim has been seeking peaceful means to lift his country out of economic ruin,

widespread famine and international isolation, according to Kongdan Oh, a Korea specialist affiliated with the Institute for Defense Analysis and the Brookings Institution in Washington.

``Bunching North Korea together with Iran and Iraq strikes a lot of people as hyperbole on the part of Mr. Bush. It was a mistake,'' she said. ``Now we all have to wait and figure out exactly what he means.'' 

KARL SCHOENBERGER is the Pacific Rim correspondent for the Mercury News and a former Los Angeles Times correspondent in Tokyo, where he covered Korea.