U.S. President George W. Bush’s upcoming trip to South Korea in mid-February is an opportunity for the Bush administration to demonstrate its new vision by explicitly support the “sunshine policy” of South Korea’s President Kim Dae-Jung–a policy that has led to significant reduction in tensions in one of the last remaining hotspots of the cold war. Over the past year, the Bush administration has demonstrated little of the flexibility and vision necessary to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula. Instead, the administration has been inconsistent and obstructionist.

Mr. Bush’s State of the Union address “axis of evil” was generally unpopular in Seoul, South Korea. As he did early in his tenure, Mr. Bush contradicted himself on an issue of vital importance to the Korean Peninsula. On March 7, 2001, when Mr. Bush held his first summit with President Kim Dae-Jung in Washington, Mr. Bush told the visiting Korean leader that he supported South Korea’s policy of engaging the North. Then at a press conference later the same day he said he was skeptical of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il. Although not explicitly backing out of his earlier commitment to support Seoul’s attempts at reconciliation, the statement implied that the U.S. was not serious about ending tensions on the peninsula. The same thing happened after the State of the Union. As soon as Mr. Bush left the House chamber, White House and U.S. State Department spin doctors said Washington remained willing to sit down for talks with Pyongyang.

Another major problem with the State of the Union address was the lack of context. While it is true North Korea is a serious violator of human rights and is still exporting missiles to countries in the Middle East, Mr. Bush is missing the point. Yes, Kim Jong-Il may be no better than Osama bin Laden. Kim starves his own people, rather than attacking civilians in other nations. But the difference is, Mr. Kim wants dialogue with Washington. He’s practically begging for it. Mr. bin Laden, on the other hand, prefers to do his talking with hijacked planes and bombs.

The White House appears to have lost much of the sense of strategic balance and flexibility it had 30 years ago when former President Richard Nixon boldly opened ties with China. That decision allowed the United States to establish a unique groundwork for containing the Soviet Union over the following two decades. During the 1970s the human rights situation in Mao Zedong’s China was even more oppressive than in North Korea today, not to mention the number of weapons of mass destruction Beijing had stockpiled. But not one Republican in Mr. Nixon’s administration addressed those issues while forging bilateral ties, opting instead to open dialogue and build trust before pressing sensitive issues. It makes one miss those kinds of Republicans who knew how to think bigger.

Mr. Bush’s speech is obstructing the inter-Korean peace process, leaving U.S. allies in the region worried. For example, President Kim of South Korea and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan did their best to back Washington during its war in Afghanistan, dispatching support troops and supplies. And how were they repaid for their help? With an inflammatory speech about the “evil” lurking on the Korean Peninsula.

But the mess Mr. Bush has created can still be cleaned up. Here is some advice I would like to pass along to the White House:

  • Choose your words carefully. Instead of using emotional phrases like “axis of evil,” which conjures up images of the World War II alliance between Hitler’s Third Reich, Mussolini’s Italy, and Tojo’s Japan, try more sophisticated terms like, “mutual threat reduction” and remind the North that it, too, has called for the reduction of conventional forces in the past. That would also improve the international image of the U.S. president.
  • Offer a package deal. Tell the North that if it would be willing to accept U.S. demands for nuclear inspections, stopping missile exports, and other issues, Washington would be ready to return the favor by removing Pyongyang from the U.S. State Department list of state sponsors of terror.
  • Stress the importance of inter-Korean dialogue. If President Bush emphasized Washington’s willingness to revise its stance toward North Korea if the North keeps its promises to South Korea, including continuing dialogue, allowing family reunions, and restarting a whole host of other stalled inter-Korean projects, Seoul would erupt in cheers for the Bush administration.

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