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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 32 (December 4, 2008)

All Headlines 10:41 December 04, 2008


President Lee's Summit Diplomacy Focused on North Korea

By Lee Jong-heon, Ph.D.
Research Fellow at the Institute for International Studies, Chung-Ang University, Seoul.

To Lee Myung-bak who became South Korea's first conservative leader in a decade early this year, U.S. President George W. Bush's tough policy was a textbook example of how to deal with a defiant North Korea. Upon taking office in February, Lee rushed to Washington to meet Bush who was applying pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear weapons drive. Lee was the first South Korean to be invited to the U.S. presidential retreat of Camp David, which signaled warming ties between the two conservative leaders.

Considering stronger ties with Washington as the best means to deter North Korea and resolve its nuclear issue, Lee placed the top priority of his U.S. trip on rebuilding the alliance, which had been strained during his liberal predecessor's tenure amid a focus on reducing American influence in pushing for reconciliation with Pyongyang.

Stronger Relations with Washington

In what was widely believed to be a political concession to win stronger U.S. security commitments, Lee agreed to resume American beef imports despite public concerns about mad cow disease, which resulted in the biggest anti-government protests in Seoul in two decades. In return, Bush agreed to upgrade bilateral ties into a "21st-century strategic alliance," keep an American military presence in South Korea and maintain close policy coordination in dealing with North Korea.

Lee and Bush, both devout Christians, met again in Seoul in August when they raised the highly sensitive issue of human rights abuses in North Korea. In a joint statement, the two leaders urged North Korea to improve its human rights conditions. It was the first time for leaders of the two allies to press North Korea over its human rights violations in a documented agreement. The accord was in line with Lee's promise not to hesitate to criticize Pyongyang for its human rights abuses, saying the human rights issue is "something we cannot avoid" and North Korea "should know it."

Lee's consistent pro-American stance was rewarded by October's $30 billion currency swap facility from the U.S. Federal Reserve, which dramatically stabilized Seoul's financial markets hit by the fallout from the global credit squeeze. In another reward, Bush lifted visa requirements for South Korean tourists.

On the back of the U.S. support, Lee sought to push for his much-touted "pragmatic diplomacy" aimed at "maximizing the national interest in a more pragmatic way" rather than ideological conviction.

The CEO-turned-president proposed massive economic aid to triple North Korea's per capita income to $3,000 within the next 10 years if Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons, under the banner of "denuclearization, openness and 3000." Lee said he is willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il as often as possible, dubbing him a "negotiable partner," despite Pyongyang's fierce personal attacks on Lee as a "traitor" and "U.S. sycophant."

Pushing for Pragmatic Diplomacy

The series of goodwill gestures came as the Bush administration, desperate to win a foreign policy success after the debacle in the Middle East, softened its stance against North Korea to break the nuclear stalemate, which led to the removal of the country from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in October.

Lee's so-called "pragmatic diplomacy" was highlighted by September's summit with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in which they agreed to push for supply of natural gas through a pipeline that runs across North Korea, which he said would benefit both Koreas and ease military tensions on the Korean peninsula. Under the summit agreement, South Korea will buy 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually from Russia for 30 years beginning 2015. Seoul plans to spend $3 billion to help build a 700-kilometer-long pipeline in North Korea to link Vladivostok to South Korea.

Lee said he was optimistic about North Korea's participation in the pipeline project, saying the cash-strapped country could earn more than $100 million annually for just allowing the pipeline to pass through the country. "The project will provide bigger economic benefits to North Korea than the (existing) inter-Korean projects of Mt. Kumgang tour and Kaesong industrial park," Lee told reporters in Moscow.

Lee's government ruled out the possibility that North Korea could use the pipeline for a political purpose, responding to concerns that the communist country could cut the pipeline in case of political instability. The government said Russia would ensure that such an incident would not happen, noting that Russia, which exports much of its natural gas to Europe, has long pursued the pipeline project with South Korea with a view to tap Japan, the world's biggest LNG importer.

Upbeat about the gas deal, Lee said he would speed up efforts to connect inter-Korean rail to the trans-Siberian railway through which South Korean products could be delivered to Europe, the second-biggest market for Seoul, a project Lee dubbed a "New Silk Road." The South Korean leader is also considering leasing land in the Russian Far East to produce grain, some of which would be used to feed starving North Koreans.

Lee focused his summit diplomacy with China on winning its promise to exert its influence on North Korea to respond to his "denuclearization, openness, 3000" policy. South Korea considers China, Pyongyang's only remaining communist ally, as one of the few nations that have leverage over the defiant leadership in Pyongyang.

In their first summit in Beijing in May, Lee and Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed to upgrade bilateral relations into a "strategic cooperative partnership." Hu told Lee that China, "as a friend to both Koreas," sincerely wishes for steady improvement in inter-Korean relations, promising to "steadfastly support" the two Koreas' reconciliation efforts.

Strategic Cooperative Partnership with China

Lee also tried to address Beijing's concerns over his pursuit of stronger ties with the United States. Coinciding with Lee's Beijing trip, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called the South Korea-U.S. military alliance "a leftover of the Cold War," saying the alliance cannot resolve the security issues of the contemporary world.

Seoul's media called for stern countermeasures against Beijing's "diplomatic disparagement," but Lee said the summit agreement on upgrading bilateral ties could ease China's concerns. In a joint statement, Lee said South Korea "recognizes China's constructive role" in promoting peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.

In another step to display his eagerness to enhance ties with Beijing, Lee made a surprise visit to the earthquake-stricken Chinese province of Sichuan, saying his visit would help the two countries become closer neighbors. He was the first foreign head of state to visit the earthquake victims. Lee said better ties between Seoul and Beijing will eventually prove to be beneficial to North Korea, apparently suggesting that joint efforts by South Korea and China could induce the North to further reform and open up.

Hu made a return visit to Seoul in August -- one day after the closing of the Olympic Games in Beijing, indicating his willingness to boost ties with South Korea. Making use of the improving ties, Lee urged Hu not to repatriate North Korean refugee-seekers.

Lee's "pragmatic diplomacy" hit a snag as Japan intensified its claim to the ownership of a South Korean island, officially describing it as Japanese territory in educational handbooks. In an angry response, Lee's office blamed the Japanese move as a "betrayal" of Seoul's goodwill gestures to build a "future-oriented" relationship with Japan, setting aside decades-long hostilities caused by Tokyo's 35-year colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.

During his visit to Tokyo in April, Lee told Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda that he would not raise the issue of Japan's past atrocities, in line with his pragmatic diplomacy. As a symbolic measure to end their history dispute, Lee invited Emperor Akihito to visit South Korea, for what would be the first imperial visit since the end of the colonial rule, despite public criticism in the South.

Lee also sided with Japan in pressing North Korea to come clean on the issue of the abductions of Japanese nationals decades ago. "North Korea should resolve the abduction issue if it wants to join the international community," Lee told the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper during his visit to Japan in July.

President Lee's Satisfaction on the Diplomacy with Big Powers

In October, Lee met Fukuda's successor Taro Aso on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting in Beijing. Lee and Aso, known to take a more hawkish view on North Korea than his predecessor, agreed to cooperate on Pyongyang's nuclear issue, but the outcome was short of Lee's expectation. Japan is still refusing to provide funds for an energy aid deal on ending North Korea's nuclear issue, mulling further sanctions, citing the abduction issue. But the two leaders would have more chances for policy coordination as they agreed to resume bilateral shuttle summit diplomacy, suspended following the territorial and historical disputes early this year.

Wrapping up the first round of his summitry with the Big Four powers -- the United States, Japan, China and Russia, all involved in the six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear drive, Lee said he was satisfied with the results that he said would boost peace momentum on the peninsula surrounded by the big powers.

"The United States, Japan, China and Russia are important countries for us to help maintain peace in Northeast Asia. Our upgraded relations with them are a very important change," Lee said. "In the event of an emergency on the divided Korean peninsula, relations with the four would be very beneficial to us. We have successfully established steady consultation channels with them," he said.

But he is now facing a bigger challenge following the rise of Barack Obama as the next U.S. leader. Lee's conservative government and Obama's Democratic administration may be on a collision course on North Korea. Obama vowed to prioritize engagement with North Korea and seek a direct dialogue to resolve the nuclear standoff, which could embarrass Lee's Bush-coordinated policy. The president-elect promised to pursue "tough, direct diplomacy," backed by real incentives and real pressures, to end the North Korean nuclear issue.

Obama's election also sparked concerns in Seoul that South Korea may be sidelined in the process to end the North Korean nuclear standoff and build a peace regime on the peninsula. North Korea has made swift media report on Obama's election, in an indirect expression of its hope of having direct talks with the Democratic administration, while stepping up pressure on the conservative government in South Korea. Lee is also facing demand at home to soften his stance against North Korea to avoid possible collision with Obama. The future of Lee's North Korea policy could be determined at their first summit, possibly next year.

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