The outgoing South Korean president, Kim Dae Jung, announced that he would send a special envoy to the North Korean capital next week to discuss the nuclear weapons impasse and voiced veiled criticism of President Bush's stance of resisting talks with the isolated communist state.
The envoy will fly to Pyongyang on Monday and likely will carry a letter from Kim, a spokesman for the presidential Blue House said. The incoming South Korean president, Roh Moo Hyun, today repeated his offer to meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, for a summit after Roh takes office Feb. 25.
The moves underline South Korea's efforts to become an intermediary in the standoff over North Korea's program to obtain nuclear weapons-grade uranium. Analysts here said that Pyongyang's agreement to receive the envoy may indicate that it is willing to have South Korea help mediate a dispute that North Korea has insisted must be solved directly with the United States.
"We are looking for some peaceful way of solving this through dialogue," the presidential spokesman said.
Kim Dae Jung reiterated that message in remarks at a luncheon with foreign journalists today, and took an indirect swipe at Bush's refusal to negotiate with the North Korean leader.
"Sometimes we need to talk to the other party, even if we dislike the other party," he said, repeating versions of that message three times. "There's no other way but to engage North Korea in dialogue. It's reality whether we like it or not."
Many people in the South Korean administration feel that Bush's rhetoric helped create the current crisis. Early in his presidency, Bush declared that he did not trust the North Korean leader and told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in an interview last August, "I loathe Kim Jong Il." These are personal affronts that have great weight in Asian cultures.
In his State of the Union address last January, Bush lambasted North Korea as part of an "axis of evil." Many South Koreans felt the remark torpedoed their country's "sunshine policy" and its efforts to coax North Korea out of isolation .
Kim Dae Jung's comments today came as Bush was preparing his next State of the Union address. "I woke up about 5 a.m. thinking, 'Oh my God, it's coming again. What's going to happen?' " remarked a Western diplomat.
The United States is attempting to prompt the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer the issue of North Korea's uranium enrichment program to the U.N. Security Council, a move North Korea has denounced. The IAEA, a Vienna-based watchdog agency, today scheduled a board of governors meeting for Feb. 3 to consider the matter.
[South Korean officials said early Saturday that they had requested the meeting be delayed to give diplomacy a chance.]
Although the U.S. administration has said it will not negotiate with North Korea, the Security Council deliberations could give the administration cover for talks through the Council or in its private chambers, say diplomats and analysts.
The administration has said it hopes to include in the debate "interested parties" other than the five permanent Security Council members. The additional participants would likely include South Korea, Japan, Australia and North Korea itself, if it agrees to participate.
South Korea had hoped to make progress in cabinet-level meetings with North Korea this week in Seoul, but the meetings adjourned early this morning with no meaningful advance on the nuclear dispute.
Only hours later, however, South Korea announced the dispatch of special envoy Lim Dong Won, who will travel to Pyongyang with an aide to incoming president Roh. The Blue House spokesman said the envoy's trip was proposed to North Korea around Jan. 1 and approved recently. Lim will discuss both the nuclear issue and North-South relations, according to the announcement.
In the luncheon today with foreign correspondents, Kim Dae Jung said he thought reports of recent anti-American demonstrations in South Korea were "exaggerated" and that the majority of South Koreans want the 37,000 U.S. troops in the country to stay.
But he added, "Among Korean youngsters and Korean people there are some thoughts it would be better if the United States treats us as an equal, and the U.S. supports more actively our efforts in dealing with North Korea. I think that would be better."
The North Korean news agency, KCNA, reported today that Kim Jong Il toured some of his troop emplacements Thursday night near the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas. Most of North Korea's million-man army is poised near the zone, which passes only 35 miles from Seoul.
"He was greatly satisfied to learn that the servicemen of the unit have turned all the operation theaters into an impregnable fortress with burning hatred and resentment at the U.S. imperialist aggressors," the agency report said.