Dear Mr Chairman ...

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2007, 12:00am

Remember when US President George W. Bush labelled Kim Jong-il a 'pygmy' and a 'tyrant'? Now the 'Dear Leader' is 'Dear Mr Chairman', in the newly courteous White House jargon. At least, that's how Mr Bush addressed the North Korean leader in an extraordinary letter appealing to him to reveal his entire nuclear weapons programme by the end of the year.

Mr Kim got the 'chairman' title as chief of North Korea's national defence commission. Mr Bush's decision to use that title rather than 'excellency', or a simple 'Mr', symbolises the climbdown from the hard line that he has pursued on North Korea since early in his presidency.

Whatever happened to 'CVID' - Mr Bush's earlier demand for 'complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement' of the entire North Korean nuclear programme? And what about Pyongyang's record on 'human rights', which the White House once held up as so deplorable as to justify refusal to talk directly to the North Koreans?

Is Mr Bush warming up for a summit with Mr Kim as the crowning achievement of the process of getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons? Mr Kim would love such a display of obeisance.

Mr Bush's letter was drafted when US envoy Christopher Hill was in Seoul last month on his way to Pyongyang. It uses the exact phrase that South Korean officials are mouthing: the fulfilment of North Korea's agreement to give up its nuclear weapons is 'at a critical juncture'.

Mr Bush reminded Mr Kim that the North agreed to list its entire nuclear inventory by the end of this year. The US still wants details on North Korea's programme for developing warheads with highly enriched uranium, separately (and secretly) from the plutonium at the Yongbyon complex. The US also needs to know about North Korean nuclear proliferation to other countries, notably Syria and Iran.

The rewards are clear, as Mr Hill has been saying for months. If only Mr Kim would come through as desired, the US will surely remove the North from its list of countries sponsoring terrorism, take away the embargo on most forms of trade, normalise diplomatic relations and agree to a peace treaty. That's a tempting bait.

The question is whether the ruse will work. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is spreading the word that the end-of-the-year deadline may be meaningless. In fact, as the whole history of negotiations on North Korea's nuclear programme suggests, deadlines are only made to be broken.

Other deadlines - and priorities - count for far more in both Pyongyang and Washington. The first is next Wednesday's South Korean presidential election, in which the conservative Lee Myung-bak remains the frontrunner.

Mr Lee is not expected to turn the clock back on all the agreements reached in the past decade of liberal and leftist leadership in South Korea. But he is likely to insist on a policy 'review' that could slow efforts to come to hard-and-fast terms on economic deals agreed by South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun and Mr Kim in early October.

The other priority for North Korea, of course, is the US presidential election next November. By encouraging rapprochement with North Korea, Mr Bush evidently hopes to be able to claim a success in the 13 months before he steps down in January 2009.

The obvious strategy for North Korea is to give the appearance of adherence to the nuclear agreement.

The prospects for real success, though, range from uncertain to unlikely. North Korea has baulked at South Korean demands for easier access to the Kaesong economic zone, across the line between the two Koreas, 60km north of Seoul. Cargo is belatedly about to move in and out of the zone on a 22km stretch of track built at South Korean expense. But South Korean employees at South Korean factories in the zone have to go through a half-day customs process just to get to their offices.

Mr Lee, appealing to conservatives who form a majority of South Korea's electorate, has said the North must give up its nuclear programme as a prerequisite for the huge influx of energy aid promised in the nuclear agreement. In the secret diplomacy that went on before it was revealed that Mr Bush had sent the letter, Mr Kim may already have passed on a confidential response for Mr Hill to carry to Beijing, Tokyo and on to Washington.

While left in the dark about what really went on, we may expect more ups and downs, vituperation and recrimination, waiting to see whether the US caves in to Mr Kim's demands for very little in return.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals