President Kim Dae Jung today defended his policy of engaging North Korea despite a string of confrontations since last week's naval skirmish, arguing that in the broad sweep of history engagement with communism has always worked better than confrontation.
"To the people who are skeptical about this policy, especially those in Washington, I ask them to look at what the United States did to the Soviet Union. I ask them to look at history," said Kim in an hour-long interview with The Washington Post at the presidential Blue House, a week before he is to meet with President Clinton in Washington.
Kim provided details of a "comprehensive package" of proposals presented to the Pyongyang government on a recent visit there by special U.S. envoy William J. Perry. The proposals, including normalization of diplomatic relations and an end to economic sanctions against North Korea, contain a "give and take that would end the Cold War on the Korean Peninsula," he said. In return, Pyongyang would be obliged to forgo development of nuclear weapons and halt sales of ballistic missiles.
Kim repeatedly likened North Korea to the Soviet Union, saying that it was detente, "not the Cold War," that ultimately brought about its collapse. Kim said that containment never worked with China but that President Richard Nixon's efforts to visit and engage Beijing did.
"It is the nature of a Communist regime -- if you try to pressure it or push it into a corner, the stronger it will become," Kim said.
Sixteen months after his inauguration, Kim, a former democracy activist who spent years in jail under South Korea's previous military dictators, retains generally high popularity here. He has instituted tough economic reforms that have helped South Korea recover from its devastating financial collapse faster than anyone expected.
Yet Kim is facing mounting criticism at home and abroad -- especially in Congress -- from those who say his "sunshine policy" of engagement is naive and ineffective. Those forces are calling for a harder stance toward North Korea -- a country that earns much of its cash exporting missiles to rogue nations, smuggling drugs and counterfeiting.
The North Koreans have kept tensions simmering on the heavily armed Korean Peninsula, which has been divided by a demilitarized zone since an armistice ended the Korean War nearly a half-century ago. A 37,000-strong U.S. troop presence in South Korea underscores the continuing security threat posed by Pyongyang.
Just as South Korea was seeking to aid its impoverished neighbor with new tourism and development deals that promise more than $1 billion in revenue, North Korea in recent days opened fire on South Korean vessels, balked at long-planned diplomatic talks in Beijing and detained a South Korean tourist on spy charges.
"Sunshine is not a naive policy, and our combat readiness is very powerful. No other alternative has a chance; this policy will ultimately succeed," Kim said, in his first interview since the June 15 naval clash in the Yellow Sea. A North Korean ship was sunk in the skirmish, and 20 or more North Korean seamen were presumed killed.
"I believe they must have learned a great many lessons from the clash," said Kim, who added that North Korea may have been testing his military resolve. "Our clear military victory in the . . . clash demonstrated that we are not naive in dealing with the North," he said.
Kim's July 2 visit to Washington comes at a pivotal time, just as Perry, a former defense secretary, is completing a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea for the Clinton administration. Kim has been in close contact with Perry and will meet with him in Washington.
Kim said that the package outlined by Perry to Pyongyang would offer a "guarantee of [North Korea's] security"; international respectability; and desperately needed economic assistance, including the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions. In return, Kim said, North Korea would have to: promise not to make or possess nuclear weapons, halt development and sales of ballistic missiles, and refrain from military provocations against South Korea.
Kim said it is too soon to measure North Korea's response. He said he tends to agree with analysts who believe friction is building between hard-liners in Pyongyang who are suspicious of Seoul and Washington and moderates who are interested in opening up.
Clinton administration officials said that Perry did not discuss security guarantees for North Korea on his Pyongyang visit but that he took up the possibility of a full normalization of diplomatic relations -- along with the respect for North Korean sovereignty that would come with such a move -- if North Korea complies with conditions limiting weapons development.
Kim said that intelligence reports show North Korea is making preparations to test-launch an advanced ballistic missile, which would have sufficient range to strike Alaska or Hawaii. Kim said there is no proof North Korea has actually decided to conduct the launch and that it appears any such launch would require two or three more months of preparation.
Last summer, North Korea alarmed the world by test-firing a Taepodong I missile that passed over Japan. Kim said it appears that the missile being prepared for testing is a longer-range version of the same weapon, the Taepodong II.
"We must warn North Korea that should it launch another missile, it will lead to a serious situation; it would result in great disadvantages to North Korea," Kim said, declining to be more specific.
During the interview, Kim, 74, was confident and impassioned about holding steady to his engagement policy despite the criticism. He said he prefers to take the "long view" and not change course each time North Korea commits some new act of hostility.
"My feeling is, `Well, they are at it again,' " Kim said. "That is the nature we have come to understand of North Korea. So I tell my people not to be overjoyed or not to be overly disappointed by every action that they take."
For example, the detention of the South Korean tourist on June 20 has caused Kim to suspend what is arguably the centerpiece of his sunshine effort -- a $942 million tourism and development program under which 83,000 South Koreans have visited the North since last fall. Kim said he would not allow the project to continue until the tourist -- a housewife arrested for saying that North Korean defectors live comfortably in the South -- is released and the North Koreans give "firm, solid assurance" that there will be no further incidents.
But Kim added that he will not prevent the Hyundai industrial conglomerate, which is conducting the program, and other South Korean companies from continuing to seek ways to engage the North economically.
Kim said that some of the recent North Korean provocations may have been triggered by "great desperation over the success of my diplomatic endeavors." Kim noted that North Korea's traditional patrons, Russia and China, both have endorsed his engagement efforts.
In a related development, a representative of North Korea's reclusive leadership met in Beijing today with U.S. envoy Charles Kartman on security matters, but direct discussions between North and South Korea remain stalled. The two Koreas met briefly on Tuesday in Beijing but have not resumed talks.
Kartman planned to focus on the North's nuclear and missile programs in two days of closed-door talks with North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, according to a U.S. official.
CAPTION: Kim Dae Jung, shown with wife Lee Hee Ho at a state ceremony last year, has sought to ease relations with the North through economic programs.