Some journalists profess to know more than they ought to. While President Bill Clinton insists a decision regarding a possible visit to North Korea has not been taken, some media have already published details of a Clinton itinerary. According to one such report the US president's two-day visit to Pyong-yang will begin on Nov. 12 -- just ahead of the APEC-summit meeting in Brunei. The source of this information (if we may call it that) is an unidentified South Korean government official. Similar unspecified information has been published in other media. \nWhile the anonymity of a reporter's source is a vital element of the journalistic trade, the inflationary use of anonymous sources does not necessarily promote the credibility of the media. In South Korea I have noticed abundant use of this technique of quoting people, without giving their names, a practice all the more frustrating, when the predictions published under the guise of secrecy turn out to be false. \nTimes like these with but a few official statements regarding the US government's intentions are good for rumors and speculations. One widespread method to spice up a report is quoting unspecified diplomatic sources. This may give respectability to a story, as diplomats are assumed to have access to sensitive, often also classified information. Every so often, though, the quotes appearing in the papers attributed to diplomats are either made up or this being the better case are chunks of information caught up at cocktail parties or other social gatherings. In these days many such events take place in Seoul. And indeed many interesting bits of information and viewpoints may be gathered there. \nDiplomatic talk \nIn the course of one more recent encounter with a senior diplomat of an important Western nation, I heard a rather convincing argument in support of the view that the presidential visit to Pyongyang is for all practical purposes a decided matter. Argued the diplomat: Clinton is in the final stages of his term and a visit to the former arch enemy would undoubtedly add to his historic legacy. The North Korean dictator, too, would rather see Clinton come today than tomorrow, as he must worry that a possible Republican successor would be much less tolerant in dealing with his regime. And lastly the South Koreans: President Kim Dae-jung has made no secret, that he wants the US president to visit the North. One Korean paper even wrote that Kim urged Clinton to travel to Pyong-yang. So, as all three major players favor the presidential visit, it is a foregone conclusion that it will materialize, the diplomat argued quite convincingly. \nClinton in North Korea? Just a few weeks ago this would have been all but unthinkable. But on the Korean peninsula just a few weeks have changed the world. Considering the political importance and implications of a presidential visit, the public debate whether he should go or not is crucial. Thanks to the Internet editorial opinions in the US on this matter may be followed easily from a distance. Evidently, those voices deeming any high level contact with the North Korean communists should be avoided are dying out. From what I gather the issue the US commentators is undecided on, is not so much whether Washington should engage with North Korea or not, but whether the timing and the conditions are ripe for the visit of the chief executive. \nAfter a half a year of encounters and engagements between the North Korean leaders and Western counterparts, a meeting just for the sake of a meeting, without ascertained results is definitely not considered enough. The situation in Korea has moved beyond the point of such symbolism. By visiting Pyongyang, Clinton would condone and legitimize the North Korean rulers in a manner unprecedented so far, opening the North way not only to more foreign aid, but also to more commercial interaction and investment. \nWhat are the North Koreans willing to pay in return for this big political present? Are they ready for the much publicized bargain and curb their missile program in exchange for US promises to help resurrect their defunct economy? These are the central questions, to which answers are not possible at this moment. Much will depend on the outcome of the bilateral missile talks that begin today between the two nations in Kuala Lumpur. \nWindow of opportunity \nIt has however become apparent that Washington is for the time being turning a blind eye on issues considered high priority in the past. According to one report, US administration officials said the human rights situation could be dealt with in a better manner once relations with Pyongyang have reached a more mature stage. In short: the window of opportunity has opened, and Washington is in a hurry not to lose what is considered by many an historical chance. \nRegarding hasty policy decisions vis-a-vis the North Korean regime, the US finds itself in good company. I am referring to the European countries, who late last month assembled with their East Asian partners in Seoul for the third ASEM summit. Arguably the most important result of that meeting were the announcements of some European governments to establish diplomatic relations with Pyongyang soon. Among these nations were two European powerhouses, Germany and the UK. \nQuite obviously their unilateral announcements were made, without prior North Korean assurances regarding matters, that until recently had been considered vital in European capitals, namely human rights and weapons proliferation. One European diplomat tried to explain this change of mind with a North Korea-euphoria which has taken grip of some European govern-ments. Not all countries though have jumped on to the bandwagon, Notably, France's President Jacques Chirac has made it clear that Paris continues to attach conditions regarding the normalization of relations with North Korea, singling out the weapons issue and human rights. \nOne analyst explained this French position with the traditional desire of French diplomacy to do things differently than the US. I would add, that unlike other European countries, human rights activists with an interest in North Korea are well organized in France, and their campaign against an unconditional engagement with what they term the most extraordinary totalitarian dictatorship on the planet has had some impact on the government. Taken together these facts may well explain France's lack of enthusiasm in dealing with North Korea. \nBut, then, maybe the reason for Chirac's tardiness and Clinton's haste is much more banal: in contrast to his American colleague the Frenchman is not leaving office in a few weeks. \nRonald Meinardus is the resident representative in Seoul of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, the German foundation for liberal politics, which enjoys close links with Germany's Free Democratic Party.
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