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Published: Friday, 12/26/2008

Korean prospects

DESPITE showing some promise, U.S. relations with North Korea and South Korea now appear to have run out their string in the final days of the Bush Administration.

In his first term, President Bush, in a State of the Union address, labeled North Korea one of three "axis of evil" states. Even so, careful U.S. diplomacy with five other parties - China, Japan, Russia, and both Koreas - was used to ease North Korea away from pursuing a nuclear program in return for economic and political incentives.

Throughout the diplomatic process, North Korea took an on-again, off-again stance that always called into question its good faith in the negotiations. Encouragement that success might be achievable was lent by the lead role that China played in the talks. It exercises considerable influence over Pyongyang through its considerable control of North Korea's access to fuel and rice.

The role of the United States in the six-party talks remained crucial, however, given that it could provide North Korea the global acceptance it has lacked since its creation by the Soviet Union after World War II. In spite of what looked like imminent success in the negotiations, North Korea has now halted the talks with the apparent intention of running out the clock until the end of the Bush Administration.

Pyongyang's strategy is reminiscent of Iran's in 1980, when it held off releasing the American embassy hostages until the administration of Ronald Reagan took power in January, 1981, thus seeking to gain credit with the new president rather than with the outgoing government.

The other Bush effort on the peninsula which may have stalled for now is the proposed free trade deal with South Korea. The agreement was successfully negotiated, but now the Seoul government is having difficulty in getting parliamentary approval. Congress has not provided its agreement either, so that means the plan will go back on the legislative agenda in January. It could face reduced prospects of approval in the next session, given the new Congress' greater resistance to free trade deals. Some lawmakers have expressed particular reservations about the Korean trade deal's implications for the American auto industry.

All in all, it appears that Bush Administration efforts to deal with the problems presented by all three of its "axis of evil" states - Iran, Iraq, and now North Korea (plus South Korea) - have fallen short. That will leave only more on the plate of the new administration in January.



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