On Monday, in yet another reflection of the Bush administration’s intensifying efforts to woo Moscow, the U.S. State Department hailed what it described as the Kremlin’s effort to encourage dialogue between the two Koreas. In remarks that followed in the wake of this past weekend’s talks in Moscow between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (see the Monitor, August 7), State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that Washington had noted “with pleasure that the Russian president stressed to Chairman Kim the importance of making a visit to South Korea, resuming the North-South dialogue.” An unidentified senior State Department official was quoted as having welcomed assurances from Moscow indicating that Kim had also reiterated his commitment to maintain a moratorium on launching long-range missiles. The State Department remarks appeared to reflect a sentiment first expressed late last month by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had suggested that Moscow might play a “useful” role in pushing Kim back to the negotiating table (Reuters, August 6; AFP, August 7). Talks between the two Koreas, which reflect South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine policy” of reconciliation with the North, have stagnated since early this year when the then newly inaugurated Bush administration adopted a harder line toward Pyongyang as it launched a review of U.S. policy in this area. That review process ended this past June with a White House decision to reengage the North, albeit under stricter conditions than had prevailed during the Clinton administration. The current U.S. position no longer focuses so extensively on Pyongyang’s missile development program, but aims instead at a more comprehensive examination of North Korea’s general military potential (New York Times, July 3).
It is precisely this change in U.S. policy that some analysts have suggested lies at the heart of the most controversial portion of a joint Russian-North Korean statement signed after this past weekend’s Moscow talks. The statement in question involves a demand by the North that U.S. troops be withdrawn from South Korea, and an accompanying Russian expression of “understanding” for that demand. Boucher’s remarks yesterday were notable for the fact that they included no comments either on the withdrawal question or on another part of the joint statement clearly aimed at the United States, one in which Moscow and Pyongyang defended the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and vowed to strengthen its international stature. On Monday the South Korean government officially rebuffed the North Korean demand for U.S. troop withdrawal. A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman described the American troop presence as “a bilateral issue between the United States and the Republic of Korea.” The same spokesman also suggested that the wording in the Moscow declaration was “intended more for domestic consumption [in North Korea] than anything else.” The remark reflected the belief among some analysts that Kim Jong-il had used the withdrawal statement to mollify hardliners at home (New York Times, August 7). Analysts have also suggested, however, that the North Koreans may have insisted on the withdrawal statement as a response to the Bush administration’s call for the agenda in any resumed U.S.-North Korean talks to be expanded to include the conventional forces North Korea has stationed on the South Korean border. “Capitalizing on the summit with Russia,” one South Korean academic said, “the North is trying to reaffirm that it would take issue with the presence of U.S. troops in the South if the United States sticks to the conventional disarmament issue” (Korea Herald, August 5).
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