On the surface, President Bush's visit to South Korea went a long way toward calming tensions between Washington and Seoul over how to handle communist North Korea. Bush and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung stood side by side on the edge of the tense demilitarized zone, the world's last remaining Cold War frontier, to urge Pyongyang to resume a dialogue. "We are prepared to talk with the North about steps that would lead to a better future," Bush said at the border.
Beneath the diplomatic niceties and words of praise, however, is the cold reality of a sharp divergence in the allies' approaches to North Korea. Bush was quick to reassert his skepticism of the Stalinist regime's reforms. Kim, meanwhile, reaffirmed Seoul's commitment to his "sunshine" policy of engaging North Korea, which has been characterized by Seoul's incentives and the lack of punitive steps for failing to deliver on promises.
Bush's declaration that the U.S. has no intention of attacking North Korea assured many Koreans that there would be no repeat of 1994, when the two nations reached the brink of war. That crisis was averted when Pyongyang agreed to halt its nuclear research programs in return for $5 billion in advanced nuclear power reactors from the U.S. Although Kim himself was one of the first to refer to war threats three weeks ago, he thanked Bush for "clarifying" any misunderstanding created by his State of the Union speech, when the President lumped Pyongyang into what he called an "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq.
The fact is, Bush's rhetoric has helped deepen the polarization between rival political camps in South Korea. Their fierce confrontation will likely bar not only a breakthrough in relations with North Korea but will also hamper Seoul's policy coordination with Washington. "You will have to wait until after Koreans choose the successor to President Kim Dae Jung before expecting any meaningful change in policy to break a deadlock on the Korean peninsula," says political science professor Shin Jung Hyun at Kyunghee University in Seoul.
In the run-up to two crucial votes -- local government elections in June and the presidential poll in December -- the political jockeying will only intensify in Seoul, as politicians will be bent on stopping any move seen benefiting their rivals. Kim, in the last year of his five-year term, is constitutionally barred from seeking reelection, but he commands absolute influence in the Millennium Democratic Party that he founded.
Koreans had a preview this week of what could unfold in this election season. In a parliamentary session only two days before welcoming the head of state of Seoul's most important ally, a lawmaker from Kim's ruling party branded Bush an "incarnation of evil." Song Suk Chan said he couldn't tolerate Bush's tougher line on North Korea, considering it an insult to his boss, who has banked his political legacy on promoting inter-Korean reconciliation.
GIVE TO GET.
Song also called opposition leader Lee Hoi Chang a "root of evil" for siding with Bush and for accusing Kim of giving too many concessions to the North while getting little in return. Lee's Grand National Party considers Kim naive and calls on North Korea, as a gesture of sincerity, to pull back the troops, batteries, and missiles massed along the DMZ and to stop developing weapons of mass destruction. The opposition party maintains that the principle of reciprocity must be observed before North Korea receives further aid.
Other opposition members of Parliament didn't take Song's affront to their leader in good humor. They rushed to the rostrum to scuffle with Song and seize the text of his speech. The next day, opposition lawmaker Park Sung Kook likened Kim's government to "the Red Guard of Kim Jong Il's regime" in the North. "With politicians obsessed with elections, you can forget about any cool-headed policy review or a new constructive initiative," professor Shin says.
Korean voters are also emotionally divided. During Bush's two-day visit, rival groups of angry protesters staged daily street demonstrations. In a protest near the U.S. embassy in Seoul, radicals opposing Bush's hawkish stance used a sledge hammer to destroy a wooden replica of a U.S.-built F-15 fighter jet, a candidate to be included in Seoul's $4 billion fighter purchase program. Scores of others ransacked an American Chamber of Commerce office, accusing Bush of scuttling Kim's detente policy. Meanwhile, war veterans and other conservative groups rallied in support of Bush's pressure on the North.
Recent political history does not augur well for the coming elections. Conservatives, now mostly in the opposition, have routinely drummed up fears of communist threats ahead of polling. A handful of politicians and former government officials are being tried on charges that they asked Pyongyang to stage a minor armed incursion in the DMZ in exchange for economic aid ahead of the last presidential elections, in 1997. And opposition politicians accuse Kim of timing the announcement of his historic Pyongyang visit in 2000 to help his party in parliamentary elections a few days later. Kim denies the allegation.
Meanwhile, Pyongyang, which has backed away from expanding ties with the Seoul government since Bush took office last year, won't like Kim's promise to work with Bush to curb Pyongyang's missile and other weapons programs. North Korea, which routinely describes Seoul as a puppet of Bush's "empire of the devil," canceled all remaining contacts with the South when Seoul placed its armed forces on alert after the September 11 terrorist attack on America.
With Bush and Kim Dae Jung each promising food aid to the North, Kim Jong Il might also opt to choose to wait until Kim Dae Jung's successor takes office before trying to strike a deal with the South. But no matter how you look at it, South Korea is a tight political spot.
By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul
Edited by Beth Belton