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Korea: The Road to Detente Gets Steeper

It has been a rough few weeks for the cause of detente on the Korean Peninsula. First, President George W. Bush voiced "skepticism" on Mar. 8 about North Korea's willingness to abide by a 1994 agreement to freeze its nuclear program and ruled out further U.S. talks with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il's regime for now. Then, North Korea's leading business ally in the South--85-year-old Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju Yung--died of pneumonia on Mar. 21. Chung had spearheaded efforts to boost economic cooperation between the two Koreas since 1998. His death casts doubt over projects potentially worth billions of dollars.

So is it time to call a pause in the warmup between North and South? Both Pyongyang and Seoul say no--even though the Bush Administration's hard-line stance heralds tough going ahead.

North Korea angrily condemned Bush's "provocative approach" and canceled Cabinet-level talks scheduled in Seoul in the wake of Bush's comments to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. Despite the rhetoric, though, North Korea's communist rulers want to keep developing important economic projects with the South. And there's a willingness to allow more humanitarian contacts. Says Paik Hak Soon, a North Korea specialist at security think tank Sejong Institute in Seoul: "Kim Jong Il has concluded his regime won't be sustainable without aid from the West." Meanwhile, Kim Dae Jung has just two years left in his presidential term to fulfill his own key goal of improving relations with the North.

Kim Dae Jung's challenge is to keep the ball rolling on detente even as the U.S. undertakes a months-long review of its policy toward North Korea. Kim has promised to consult Washington about his moves. To help smooth U.S. relations, on Mar. 26 he appointed a new Foreign Minister--Han Seung Soo, a former ambassador to the U.S. Even so, Washington could hamstring Kim: The Administration is unlikely to O.K. significant aid from Seoul to North Korea until it has resumed its own talks with Pyongyang. Otherwise, Seoul would "weaken motives for the North to make security concessions in its talks with the U.S.," says Kim Sung Han, a research fellow at Seoul's Institute of Foreign Affairs & National Security.

BEYOND PEN PALS. So Kim Dae Jung will likely try a two-track approach: On one level, he will push for more humanitarian contacts. On Mar. 15, for example, Pyongyang allowed its citizens to exchange letters with relatives in the South for the first time since the 1950-53 Korean War. Says Choi Sang Chol, policy director at Seoul's Unification Ministry: "We expect contacts and exchanges to deepen."

But there will likely be another level of diplomatic activity, too. Kim and his aides are hoping that Kim Jong Il's team will reschedule Cabinet-level meetings in Seoul in April, shortly after Kim Jong Il returns from a planned visit to Russia for talks with President Vladimir V. Putin. That may set the stage for a summit between the two Kims as early as May. Kim Dae Jung may also privately propose the creation of a hotline between military leaders and mutual notifications of military exercises. These symbolic moves could be a step toward discussion of troop or arms pullbacks from the DMZ.

Kim Dae Jung has to convince Kim Jong Il that it's worth making military concessions in exchange for key economic projects such as new power plants. Concessions are also crucial to winning over the skeptical Bush team, which will demand verification that the North is dismantling its nuclear program. Otherwise, Kim Dae Jung may have to write off his hopes of being the president who brings peace to his land. Angela Merkel, chairman of Germany's center-right Christian Democratic Union, faces even greater pressure to assert control of her party after a pair of state elections on Mar. 25. The CDU managed to hang on to power in Baden-Wurttemberg, a CDU bastion for half a century. But Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) boosted its share of the vote to 33% from 25%. The CDU also lost ground in Rhineland-Palatinate, an SPD stronghold.

Voters are turned off by infighting under Merkel, who has failed to define a new identity for the CDU since taking power last year. A key chance lies ahead as parliament debates how to keep the nation's pension system solvent. Merkel may win points if she gets her party comrades to agree on a message. If she fails, Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber may challenge her to become the CDU candidate for Chancellor in national elections next year. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is moving to consolidate his power over a government riven by conflicting agendas. In a reshuffle announced on Mar. 28, Putin installed a close friend, Security Council chief Sergei Ivanov, as head of the Defense Ministry, and a loyal parliamentary deputy, Boris

Gryzlov, as Interior Minister. Ivanov's replacement of outgoing Minister Igor Sergeyev is likely to spur long-awaited cutbacks in the nation's bloated armed forces. More changes, possibly including top economic officials, are expected. Putin will address the nation on Apr. 3.

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