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Saturday, 16 February, 2002, 16:09 GMT
Concerns cloud Bush's Korea policy
Anti-US demonstration
Some South Koreans are nervous about Bush's visit
test hello test

By the BBC's Caroline Gluck in Seoul
line

President George W Bush's first official visit to Seoul was planned some time ago - aimed at cementing the close military and diplomatic ties between the two countries.

But this visit reverberates to the waves created in his recent State of the Union address in January, in which he branded North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, part of an "axis of evil", as a country which exports weapons of mass destruction.


It's like pouring cold ice on the whole atmosphere, we are very concerned that this should not be allowed to develop into a more serious situation.

Governing party official
It has cast further dark shadows over the trademark sunshine policy of engagement with North Korea promoted by South Korea's President, Kim Dae Jung.

The policy - which led to a historic summit between the two Korean leaders in June 2000 and exchanges between the two countries, including limited reunions of families kept apart since the division of the peninsula half a century ago - has stumbled over the past year or so.

Early hopes that North Korea would further open up and engage in reforms have failed to be realised.

Lack of progress has helped undermine President Kim Dae Jung's administration and his consistent pursuit of his policy of engagement with the North. With less than a year left in office, he faces plummeting public support.

Engagement

Pyongyang has blamed the tougher policy line adopted by President Bush's administration for the stalled inter-Korean dialogue.

President Bush delivers his State of the Union address
Mr Bush: Willing to engage in dialogue with North Korea
But Washington has said that it is willing to engage in dialogue with North Korea at any time - and at any place. The message was repeated again just days before President Bush's visit.

But many South Koreans who have favoured engagement with Pyongyang have listened nervously to the president's latest blunt assessment of the North Korean administration.

"It's like pouring cold ice on the whole atmosphere," said Yang Sun Mook, an official of the governing Millennium Democratic Party. "We are very concerned that this should not be allowed to develop into a more serious situation."

There is likely to be a heated debate on the eve of President Bush's visit in the National Assembly. The Millennium Democratic Party is calling for the adoption of a resolution calling for the resumption of dialogue between North Korea and the US, before President Bush's arrival.

That is likely to be resisted for the time being by the opposition conservative Grand National Party - which holds the most seats.

Its leader - Lee Hoi Chang, a presidential candidate favourite - recently returned from a visit to Washington, where he met senior Bush officials and expressed reservations about Kim Dae Jung's engagement policy.

No end to dialogue

Analysts believe President Bush will tone down his rhetoric during his visit to Seoul. They expect him to repeat his support for President Kim's sunshine policy and dialogue with the North.

South Korean student burns a US flag in Seoul
South Korean students accuse Mr Bush of raising tensions
"It doesn't mean an end to the dialogue process," believes Lee Jung-Hoon, professor of international relations at Yonsei University.

"Some think it could even galvanise North Korea to begin to start talks.

"The North Korean leadership may yell, scratch, threaten┐ but they won┐t start another war; that would be suicidal. It would be erroneous to think that President Bush's comments will push North Korea into military adventurism."

The door for dialogue still remains open. But the ball - more than ever - has been placed firmly in North Korea's court.

See also:

13 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
US offers N Korea 'unconditional' talks
06 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Korean activists protest against Bush
01 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
N Korea hits back at US
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