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Don't Expect a Breakthrough between Washington and North Korea

When former President Bush nudged his son the President to resume contacts with North Korea in early June after a three-month hiatus, many Korea-watchers applauded. The move seemed to be a vindication of Seoul's "sunshine" policy of engagement with North Korean President Kim Jong Il. Bush the younger had embarrassed South Korean President Kim Dae Jung at the White House in March by publicly voicing doubts about communist North Korea's trustworthiness and by suspending talks with Pyongyang.

Yet even before the applause has died down, disillusionment is setting in among those hoping for a breakthrough. That's because the Administration's decision to renew contacts with Pyongyang is far from a softening of its hard-line stance. As a result of a major policy review, the Bush team has decided to take a tougher, more comprehensive approach to talks with North Korea than did the Clinton Administration, which channeled $600 million in aid to North Korea from 1994 to 2000.

TOUGH-LOVE TACTICS. Bush wants North Korea to halt missile exports to places like Syria and Iraq and demonstrate conclusively that it is not making nuclear weapons. These were Clinton's goals as well. But Bush also is insisting that Pyongyang pull back troops and artillery from the border area. "George Bush is not going to be giving any significant aid to North Korea unless it is bargaining at the table in good faith," says Daryl M. Plunk, senior analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank close to the Administration. Few Korea watchers think that Kim Jong Il will respond to such tough-love tactics. Indeed, on June 18, an official North Korean government statement described the Bush proposal as "hostile" and accused Washington of trying to "disarm" Pyongyang. A government spokesman also called for the U.S. to withdraw its 37,000 troops stationed in South Korea.

If both sides stick to their guns, relations between Washington and Pyongyang won't move beyond the low-level diplomatic contacts that resumed in the U.S. on June 13. A lot depends, however, on how desperate North Korea's economic situation becomes--and whether Kim Jong Il decides to compromise in order to get aid. Without foreign food aid, tens of thousands of North Koreans face famine, and energy shortages mean factories are operating at a third of capacity. Even so, Kim Jong Il has been unwilling to take steps that could weaken his country's authoritarian political system.

South Korea's Kim Dae Jung could play an important role as arbiter between Washington and Pyongyang. A 1992 nonaggression pact between North and South calls for increased military contacts, which could pave the way for eventual withdrawals of troops from the front lines. No military exchanges have taken place, but government sources in Seoul say there have recently been quiet contacts with officials from Pyongyang. Beijing, too, may pressure the North to make concessions for aid. China fears a North Korean economic collapse and worries that an out-of-control Pyongyang can serve as justification for the Bush Administration's missile defense program.

For now, all eyes are on Hanoi, where Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is expected to meet his Asian counterparts on July 24-25--and may hold a separate meeting with North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun. And Kim Dae Jung is waiting to hear whether Kim Jong Il will pay his long-awaited return visit to Seoul. A year has gone by since the unprecedented summit between the two Kims in Pyongyang. That was a moment of euphoria. Now it seems the process of building better relations will be, at best, a long, hard slog for Pyongyang, Seoul, and Washington. A scandal over $400 towels and $1,000 bedsheets in the newly remodeled presidential residence appears to be spelling an end to Mexican President Vicente Fox's six-month honeymoon. Fox, who pledged to introduce efficient government when he booted the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) from power last year, is under fire because his office boosted spending by some 70% in the first quarter of 2001 versus the same period last year. But a bigger problem appears to be Fox's failure to reign in feuding Cabinet members, who disagree on how to cope with a rapid economic slowdown and other issues. The feuding prompted rumors that Finance Secretary Francisco Gil Diaz would resign over the government's inability to expedite passage of a tax reform bill. Partly in response, the Mexican stock market hiccuped on June 20, falling 2%. France's mandatory 35-hour workweek, although generally popular with the public, is giving Socialist Premier Lionel Jospin political headaches. The national association of French employers announced June 19 it would withdraw from its longtime role in administering the nation's social security system, in part to protest the 35-hour law. Finance Minister Laurent Fabius is warning that small businesses--those with 20 employees or less--could suffer when the law is extended to them next year. Jospin, who plans to run against President Jacques Chirac next year, may try to appease critics by slowing down implementation or broadening exemptions for smaller employers.

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