Cool Korea relations turn colder

Cancellation this week of a cross-border railway opening is the latest snag in North-South relations.

Dealing with North Korea requires one main virtue: Patience.

So in the South Korean capital they wait and wait and wait: They wait for reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to muster his courage and get his act together for talks. They wait for Washington – while making the best of what is felt as US delay in dealing with the last standoff of the cold war.

Now they even wait for lame-duck President Kim Dae Jung's term to end in December, so a new tone for talks can be set.

Talks and a historic year-2000 reconciliation between the two heavily armed Koreas became dormant shortly after the Bush term began. The White House desired a "policy review" on North Korea – part of a larger US shift in Asia that reaffirmed Japan as the region's central ally and moved toward a robust friendship with Taiwan that greatly irritates China.

Then came Sept. 11, followed by President Bush's terming of North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" that includes Iran and Iraq.

Only last month did North-South dialogue in the Koreas resume, along with meetings between families estranged for 50 years. But that was short-lived.

This week, a symbolic signing in Seoul to open a railway and clear mines was cancelled by the North's protocol-busting Kim. The man known as Dear Leader by his deeply-controlled population was annoyed by comments in a US newspaper that quoted South Korea's foreign minister. Kim backed out.

Finally, it is felt here, the White House this month is sending its first envoy, James Pritchard, to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, to begin establishing the elements of a relationship with one of the most closed states in the world.

Privately, many South Korean diplomats feel White House delay sank a sensitive reconciliation process that took years to develop. They say Bush's early lackluster support of the South's Kim allowed the North's Kim to back out of talks. They say, moreover, that they now see little difference in approach between the current and previous US administrations.

"They have just wasted time," a senior official here stated wearily. "The White House is now back pretty much to where we left off with Clinton. In the meantime, we lost 16 months. I'm not sure the region is any better off.

"The Japanese are still talking about the same stuff with Pyongyang."

Welcome to the waning days in Seoul of the once-lauded "sunshine policy," and its Nobel prize-winning architect, Kim Dae Jung. Few experts anticipate the next leader of the South will be able to offer the North anything like the generous package Kim did. In many ways, the smile of sunshine two years ago has become something of a smirk in recent months.

For his part, President Kim, despite his peace prize and his cohosting with Japan of the soccer World Cup next month, is leaving with a touch of ignominy. His three sons are being investigated for influence peddling and corruption in a scandal known as "The Three Hongs." This week, Kim resigned as leader of his party.

Supporters of a tougher US policy toward North Korea say the White House has, post-Sept. 11, made it crystal clear to Kim Jong Il that there is "no more Mr. Nice Guy," as one Western diplomat here put it. North Korea is suspected of exporting missile technology and of having the capacity to conduct a program to manufacture weapons of mass destruction.

A South Korean official says the main difference between the Clinton approach, and the post-Sept. 11 Bush approach, "is that Kim Jong Il knows there is no more wiggle room. Under Clinton, they could get something out of brinkmanship. I think they aren't sure anymore."

The consensus view in Seoul is that the cancelled meeting this week, which would have included a major shipment of needed rice to hungry North Korea, was done under a pretext. "Kim has done this before, usually when he is not ready for talks. I think they just weren't prepared."

The North is under increasing pressure. Kim, who lost China and Russia as his main allies several years ago, needs to open up the North for needed investment and capital. Yet there is worry in Kim's circles, intelligence reports say, that too much opening will unravel the extreme levels of police control needed to keep the population compliant.

Dissatisfaction and even desperation are behind increasing instances of North Koreans slipping into China – and seeking asylum in embassies and consulates. Some 23 refugees dashed into the Spanish Embassy in Beijing last month. On Wednesday this week, five of seven refugees from North Korea were captured as they tried to rush the Japanese Consulate in Shenyang.

"They need our money, our supplies, our grain, our power, our fertilizer, our support," says one South Korean diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They find it hard to admit they need us. But they do. The policy of engagement is the only policy that will work in the long run."

What South Koreans mainly wait for is the long expected trip by Kim Jong Il to Seoul. That would be the most significant icebreaker – and Kim of the North promised such a visit to Kim of the South two years ago. But he has never followed through. Last month in Pyongyang, Kim ordered his military, in the presence of Lim, the South's envoy, to clear the land mines away from the main rail link between South and North, sources here say. But the mines remain.

Most Koreans in the South no longer speak of the North as "the enemy" – as they did a few years ago. Some here say the engagement policy has prevented the collapse of North Korea. The sunshine policy is also regarded as an important form of "people to people" diplomacy. As many as 10 million Koreans have been separated from their families since the Korean war ended in 1953.

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