Tomorrow's talks between US President George Bush and his South Korean counterpart No Mu-hyon will be a key moment in the protracted Korean crisis. If the sides do not come to an agreement, then there will be no settlement. This is due to the fact that the US must have South Korea on side in any development of events, including the military scenario, while Seoul cannot go on arguing with America forever about how it should behave with regard to Pyongyang.
The Republican administration in Washington is still arguing about what the right course should be in Korean affairs. However, it has already become clear that the administration has generally made too many mistakes with regard to the Korean issue (if you see a mistake as meaning ending up with one situation, when you were trying to achieve a different one). The biggest mistake of all was deciding to leave Korean policy entirely untouched until the election of a new South Korean president at the end of last year.
In reality, the Republican administration, as it now has become clear, having taken the view that the policy of rapprochement with North pursued by ex-President Kim Dae-jun was spineless and useless (even though he received the Nobel Peace Prize for this), all but created a scandal. Kim was due to leave office this February and Washington expected that the new leader would be compliant. After all, according to all the polls, his victory was a sure thing.
Who would have thought that this "deferral" position, plus Pyongyang's sharp moves last autumn, would force the South Korean electorate to change their allegiances and vote in No Mu-hyon, Kim Dae-jong's heir. His coming to power in Seoul again saw the Bush administration descend into a drawn-out period of debate.
However, the US and South Korea have now prepared a compromise after the long hiatus that was filled with Pyongyang's blatant provocations, as it threatened everyone with its nuclear weapons.
According to a statement from the White House press secretary, the two presidents will discuss how their countries can work as equal partners to solve the North Korean nuclear issue peacefully. They are also expected to give a joint answer to Pyongyang's proposals made during talks in Beijing on April 23rd-25th. Bush is only expected to declare his final position on the matter, following Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to Washington, which is expected to take place right after the Korean leader's trip.
If an agreement is reached, then it will be a major achievement. The problem is that, according to the Japan Times, the two presidents are still acting on "diametrically opposed instincts" in relation to Pyongyang. Bush, the paper believes, views North Korea's blackmail to be unacceptable, while No suggests that, as diplomacy reaped great dividends in relations with the North in the 1990s, renewed efforts on this front are needed.
However, it is noteworthy that, at the same time, No Mu-hyon and his team have managed to curb their anti-Americanism and are trying to forge good relations with the Bush administration. This has become clear not only in his recent interviews given in the run-up to the visit, but also in his decision to support the war in Iraq (literally from the very first day), despite overwhelming public opposition to it in South Korea.
The anti-Americanism comes on the heels of the economy. Today the foreign (and even domestic) policy of virtually any state is based on the state of the financial markets. How can a Korean investor be expected to behave on the constant twists of the winding road to a Korean settlement?
On the one hand, on the eve of No Mu-hyon's visit to the USA, the South Korean Stock market index (the KOPSI) rose to its highest level since No took office on February 25th. The reality is that the USA remains an important economic partner for South Korea and a benevolent atmosphere in relations between the two countries is highly important for many companies.
It is true that America ceded its position to China last autumn as Seoul's leading partner. China also became the world's number one country (overtaking the US) last year in terms of attracting foreign investment, as it received 51 billion dollars. Accordingly, South Korea (along with Japan and virtually the whole of Asia) chiefly depends on China now, with everyone else playing second fiddle. This obviously presents a foreign policy dilemma: a country has to be on friendly terms with America without causing friction with China.
In the final analysis, the main thing for the Pacific Ocean region and for Russia is not the level of compromise the USA and South Korea reach. The compromise is not an end in itself, but a very important step on the road to a final Korean settlement that is still a long way off.
The main ingredient is missing: there is no clear-cut and potentially acceptable plan for all the countries in the region, including China, to resolve all the problems on the Korean peninsula. There is no kind of Palestinian "road map" towards peace and stability.
So far we have only seen endless arguments within the Bush administration, and more talk about how to conduct negotiations with the main players: face to face with the help of a mediator (as was the case at the end of April in Beijing) or on a multilateral basis. It is not even clear what these talks will be about.
It is not difficult to say that the priority is to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. Every player in the game is agreed upon this point: Russia and China, Japan and South Korea, and the USA. This is even true of North Korea, as in the last few months the Pyongyang regime has been doing nothing other than suggesting to Washington that it will renounce its nuclear pretensions in return for non-aggression guarantees, economic co-operation, the resumption of fuel supplies and much else.
The second problem is the price tag, i.e. how much it will cost to persuade or force North Korea to do all this. It is a problem of North Korea's survival. Last year it started economic reforms, but with or without them, Pyongyang will not pull through, if it does not receive support from neighbouring states. In particular, this means humanitarian aid, but, above all, assistance in the energy sphere.
The Korean crisis, as is known, began with the USA's refusal last autumn to deliver boiler oil to the North in line with the 1994 agreement, and not with Pyongyang's admission that it had a nuclear programme (an admission that is now known was never made). If the matter of who will help North Korea in the energy and how this will be done is not solved, then there will be no settlement. There will only be what all North Korea's neighbours fear most: chaos and floods of refugees.
The third problem concerns future economic co-operation on the Korean peninsula. This would mean major funding from North Korea's neighbours for its development, but this will not happen while there are no stability guarantees from the key participants in the conflict, i.e. North Korea and the USA.
If there is still no clarity on these three issues after the South Korean president's visit to Washington, then North Korea's neighbours will have to conduct an improvised policy this summer and autumn to reduce at least the economic and humanitarian tension in the region. And then, who knows? Maybe a policy to resolve the "nuclear problem" on the peninsula might follow.
Dmitri Kosyrev, RIAN