Korea slips off the radar in US presidential primaries

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 February, 2008, 12:00am

US politicians talk incessantly about the Middle East, the US military commitment in Iraq, the fighting in Afghanistan, the hunt for guerillas in Pakistan and violence between Israelis and Palestinians. But they seem to have forgotten about Korea.

No one in any of the televised debates has asked any of the candidates for the Republican or Democratic presidential nominations about North Korea's nuclear weapons. And none of the hundreds of reporters covering all the candidates has raised the issue of North Korea.

As the race to succeed US President George W. Bush narrows, however, speculation mounts as to what each of the major players - Republican Senator John McCain, and Democrats Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Barack Obama - would do to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons.

The question assumes mounting importance as the conservative Lee Myung-bak awaits inauguration on February 25 as president of South Korea. Mr Lee will fly to Washington after South Korea's National Assembly elections on April 9 in the hope of rebuilding rapport with Mr Bush after nearly a decade of strained relations between the two nations.

Undoubtedly, Senator McCain offers the best hope for going along with a turn to the right in South Korea's policy towards the North. In fact, Senator McCain, arguing for a semi-permanent US troop presence in Iraq, included South Korea on a list of other countries where the US has had troops 'for many, many years'.

At odds with both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton on the US commitment to Iraq, Senator McCain could be expected to oppose any moves to further reduce the number of US troops in South Korea.

Senator McCain wrote in the American journal Foreign Affairs, 'It is unclear today whether North Korea is truly committed to verifiable denuclearisation and a full accounting of all nuclear materials and facilities, two steps that are necessary before any lasting diplomatic agreement can be reached.' In future talks, the US must 'take into account North Korea's ballistic missile programmes, its abduction of Japanese citizens, and its support for terrorism and proliferation' - all issues that Pyongyang is sure to refuse to discuss.

This outlook is clearly at odds with the conciliatory tone of both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama.

'North Korea responded to the Bush administration's effort to isolate it by accelerating its nuclear programme, conducting a nuclear test and building more nuclear weapons,' Senator Clinton wrote in Foreign Affairs. 'Only since the State Department returned to diplomacy have we been able, belatedly, to make progress.'

Senator Obama has made negotiations a centrepiece of a drive to rebuild alliances. 'Needed reform of these alliances and institutions will not come by bullying other countries to ratify changes we hatch in isolation,' he wrote in Foreign Affairs. 'We belittled South Korean efforts to improve relations with the North.'

If either Senator Obama or Senator Clinton wins, a key player in foreign policy may be New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who dropped out as a rival for the Democratic nomination but would love to be on the Democratic ticket as vice-presidential candidate.

Thus, his article in Foreign Affairs may be just as significant, especially considering that he has visited North Korea several times and has been a staunch advocate of reconciliation. It would, he wrote, 'require tough and persistent US diplomacy to unite the world, including China and Russia, behind efforts to contain the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.'

The bottom line, he said, is: 'We should remember that no nation has ever been forced to renounce nuclear weapons but that many nations have been convinced to renounce them.' He specifically cited Libya - but, clearly, he had North Korea in mind.

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