Bush gets tough

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 March, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 March, 2001, 12:00am

President George W. Bush has taken a hard look at the North Korean policy he inherited from Bill Clinton and clearly doesn't trust it. As a result, just where that leaves South Korea's policy of seeking rapprochement with the north remains unclear.

Not so long ago, the then-US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, visited Pyongyang for talks with Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. Mr Clinton was set to follow and sign a missile-control agreement, but was held back because the American election result remained so long in doubt.

Now Mr Bush and his hawkish advisers seem to be beating an at-least- temporary retreat from the policy Mr Clinton left behind. He is said to be 'extremely suspicious' of Mr Kim's intentions, and his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, refers to Pyongyang's government as 'a broken, despotic regime'. All contact with the north has been suspended pending completion of a policy review at some future date.

What this all means has not been explained. It became public while South Korean President Kim Dae-jung was in Washington, and hardly seemed a vote of confidence in his 'sunshine policy' of seeking better relations on the peninsula.

The sceptics are already calling it a cynical effort to guarantee that North Korea reverts to its prior belligerence, thus becoming the 'rogue state' needed to justify building the costly missile defence system Mr Bush wants so much to have.

But there is a less duplicitous possibility. So far, the north has demanded much foreign aid while giving almost nothing in return, a few symbolic gestures aside. The border between the two Koreas remains as over-armed as ever, with Pyongyang refusing even to discuss ways of reducing the military threat. It is this refusal which explains most of Mr Bush's suspicions and his talk of needing to verify agreements.

So this could be a bit of brinkmanship. If Pyongyang truly wants more aid and engagement, it must learn the meaning of the word reciprocity.