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The U.S. vs North Korea, as seen from Seoul

COMMENTARY | July 03, 2006

South Korean editorialists see a disconnect between long-time allies and are growing anxious about it.

By John Burke

PARISHaving depended so long on American military power to hold off its bellicose neighbors to the north, South Korea has been gradually growing anxious about the imminent pullout of U.S. troops from the Demilitarized Zone. The latest revelation that North Korea is preparing a missile test, a weapon that reportedly has the potential to reach the United States, hasn’t helped allay fears. [Editor's note: On July 4th, North Korea launched six test missiles.]

To make matters worse for Seoul, the Bush administration, preoccupied with the Middle East, has declined to talk to Kim Jong-il unilaterally while persisting with its rhetoric condemning his plans for nuclear development. South Koreans, unsurprisingly, would like to see its ally in the war that never officially ended change its tone and negotiate.

Calling for its own government to take a stronger stance and for the United States to pay more attention to the peninsula’s problems, the South Korean press reflected the concerns of its people:

With a summit between Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on the horizon in September, the South Korean daily Chosun points to the gaps between the two governments’ views of the North Korean situation as well as the growing distrust the South Korean population feels towards the U.S.:

“The (South Korean) government should face the forthcoming summit in frank acknowledgement of differences in position on major bilateral issues…

“It is well known that this government and the U.S. have many diametrically opposite positions, to the point where no single summit will be enough to reconcile them all. Instead, they will have to try and find where the differences between Washington and the Korean people lie and seek common ground there.

“Thus a recent call in the U.S. for a preemptive strike against North Korea’s missile base is a matter that is unacceptable to the Korean people…”

In another editorial, The Chosun refers to the friction on the 38th parallel as” precarious,” fears a retreat by the country that provides 90% of the intelligence on North Korea as “Dismantling our Pillar of Our Security,” and strongly disagrees with terminology used in a recent Washington Post editorial:

“(The Post) casually mention(s) "a few bloody weeks of war” (if the U.S. were to strike North Korea), but that could indeed turn the Korean Peninsula into a "sea of fire." Millions of people in the two Koreas could be killed…

“White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley denied the possibility of a preemptive attack, saying, ‘We think diplomacy is the right answer, and that is what we are pursuing.’ But that statement alone is not enough to quell all concerns. During the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis, too, the U.S. administration officially denied plans for preemptive air strikes. But it was confirmed later that specific preparatory steps were being taken...

“The real concern is whether our government has grasped the U.S. administration's real intention, and if so, if it has the means of dissuading the U.S. from making that dangerous choice. The U.S. has not told our government whether it has Aegis destroyers in the East Sea to intercept the missile. That is about the measure of trust the two allies enjoy.”

Since the current Bush administration doesn’t seem to be ready to engage in formal talks with Pyongyang through chief negotiator Christopher Hill, South Korea’s Joongang Ilbo suggests that it send an unofficial envoy… in the form of Bush Senior:

“Why is North Korea attempting to test-fire a missile? What is its intention in placing a missile on the launch pad?

“Is President Bush exaggerating or pretending when he says he has no idea? Probably not, because Pyongyang has said absolutely nothing about its rumored imminent missile launch…

“If Washington is to find a clue to resolve the problem, President Bush should figure out Pyongyang's intentions. It is not enough just to guess that what Pyongyang wants is to have direct talks with Washington…(Washington) then should have contact with Pyongyang…

“The Bush administration emphasizes resolution by diplomacy, neglecting an alternative of a pre-emptive attack on the North's missile launch pad. But can it be called diplomacy, while Washington appears to depend solely on China's mediation?

“What if George Herbert Walker Bush, father of the current U.S. president, met with Kim Jong-il, the leader of the communist country?

“If George H. W. Bush visits the North not as a special envoy but as an individual, Washington can still say that is not in the form of direct talks.

“Mr. Kim would probably welcome former President Bush, because his visit would enhance Mr. Kim's status and give him a good chance to say what he has to say to the United States.

“Even if prospects seem unclear, Washington should think about a visit by the former president to North Korea. That is diplomacy in the truest sense and the right way to take the lead in the current situation.”

The Joongang continues, fearing that the “Disconnect between allies helps the North,” but saying that Washington doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about engaging in discussions:

“It was once considered axiomatic that neither the U.S. nor South Korea had much of a policy toward Pyongyang unless the two countries were working on parallel tracks. This premise evidently is not shared by President George W. Bush or President Roh Moo-hyun…

“Serious efforts to forge coordinated policies toward North Korea have broken down. Today, South Korean and U.S. strategies to achieve a non-nuclear Korea work at cross purposes with one another. Mutual trust is evaporating, and behind the scenes, officials on both sides scarcely conceal their doubts about the other's approach and motives.

“The U.S. policy toward North Korea seems again to have veered to the right, perhaps to firm up support from the GOP's conservative base before mid-term elections in November…

“Curiously, the Bush Administration recently seemed to encourage reports that it was exploring a new negotiating tactic — talks with the North about a peace treaty while negotiating at the same time over the nuclear issue. But it doesn't appear there is much fire behind this smoke…And with his hands full in the Middle East, the president's foreign policy team seems almost relieved to keep the North Korean problem on the back burner…

“The results of this unhappy divergence in policy between the U.S. and South Korea are unhappily all too clear. The six-party talks are moribund…

“It is high time Washington and Seoul got serious. Time is not an ally. Diplomacy must be infused with a sense of urgency…For America, this means relinquishing its occasional preoccupation with "regime change."

A North Korean specialist for the Joongang Ilbo thinks that Washington is perhaps smarter than it looks. Having diverted Kim Jong-il’s resources through sanctions on one of his money laundering banks, he says the US is “Inflicting some pain on Pyongang”:

“Why would Washington only attack accounts in Macao and leave the rest alone? It looks suspiciously like Washington is trying to leave room for secret negotiations with Pyongyang. In other words Washington would have a new card —accounts containing several million dollars each — to bring Pyongyang back to the six-way talks.”

Another column in the Joongang Ilbo entitled “Same missile threat, different goals,” implies that Bush is hesitant to talk with President Kim Jong-il because a summit won’t help him or the Republicans win votes:

“…the Bush administration is not likely to start direct negotiations with North Korea in the short term. But the North's ability to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles has already increased drastically, while President George W. Bush's popularity has plummeted… The mid-term and the presidential elections are ahead, but the Bush administration's only alternative is to negotiate with North Korea carrying a mid- to long-term perspective.

“President Bush must accept the policy proposed by senators Carl Levin and Hillary Clinton in their letter to the president on June 15: A streamlined and coordinated presidential strategy for the settlement of the issue through negotiations must be developed and a high-level special envoy to North Korea should be appointed.”

The Joongang stuck with its editorial line calling for the Bush administration to accept North Korea’s invitation of Christopher Hill and compares the situation with that of Iran, which according to the paper has been, of late, approached more sensibly:

“No matter what its intentions might be, we believe that the United States can think positively about the North's invitation…

The prolonged stalemate of the six-party talks is no good for anyone. To get out of this situation, some kind of breakthrough needs to happen in North Korea-U.S. relations. However, no breakthroughs can be made without dialogue…

“North Korea's offer to meet with Mr. Hill needs to be looked at closely, particularly when the global debates over Iran's nuclear programs have changed the atmosphere.

“U.S. President George W. Bush had refused to have a dialogue with Iran in the face of opposition from his neo-conservative backers, but lately he has accepted advice from people who emphasize practical diplomacy, such as Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. This change is very meaningful.

“In terms of nuclear development programs, North Korea and Iran have been taking the same steps, with one ahead of the other. Washington should keep up the momentum it has been building for so long to solve these problems.”

An editorial in the Korea Herald entitled “What went wrong with America” highlights the double standard that the Bush administration invokes on the global nuclear stage, referring to its support of India’s proliferation:

Consider, first, the recent nuclear agreement signed between the United States and India. In strictly legal terms, there is nothing wrong, since India never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But in psychological and political terms, the deal signed could only be perceived as legitimizing for Iran's nuclear ambitions, not to mention North Korea's. It was the ultimate proof that the Bush administration does not believe in universal norms. A ‘good’ country would be treated with extreme leniency, whereas a ‘bad’ country would not.”

The Korea Times denounces the six-party Beijing talks as having been ineffective while echoing the call for an envoy to be sent to negotiate with Pyongyang:

“The ongoing diplomatic tit-for-tat only reconfirms how deep the mutual distrust is between (the U.S. and North Korea). Washington regards Pyongyang with some reason as an unreliable dialogue partner, while the North suspects that the world's sole superpower ultimately wants to change its regime. This situation has existed since the abandoned Agreed Framework of 1994. That accord became a scrap of paper as both sides reneged on it, while pointing at each other for breaking promises first…

“The North has done nothing right, but at least it appears ready for a dialogue. It is the U.S. that is refusing a one-on-one talk, while adhering to multilateral talks, which are an ineffective way to deal with such bilateral issues as financial sanctions and the ongoing missile crisis. It is self-contradictory, anyway, for Washington to say it prefers a diplomatic solution while rejecting offers for talks. Now is an opportunity for the U.S. to break the vicious circle of distrust, ending a confrontation of arrogance versus pride.

President Bush should accept the Congressional advice for resuming a dialogue by sending an envoy.”

China’s The People’s Daily points its finger at the U.S. for exacerbating the world’s nuclear proliferation problems:

“For some time, coverage on U.S. nuclear and non-nuclear capacity-building has raised concerns in the international community…

“The nuclear earth-penetrating bombs and conventional warheads can be of service to the war on terrorism, however, the proceeding new nuclear weapon development program demonstrated that the nuclear and non-nuclear capacity-building of the U.S. has gone beyond its demand of "anti-terrorism" activities, and will seriously damage the efforts of the international community in prevention of nuclear proliferation.

“The new nuclear weapon development program would probably lead to a new round of the arms race.

“Once the United States conducts nuclear tests, other countries will have no obligation to continue keeping their commitments on the moratorium of nuclear testing.

“The new nuclear weapon development plan shows that the United States has no intention of downgrading the status of nuclear weapons in its national military strategy. On the contrary, its development of nuclear earth-penetrating bombs and other new nuclear weapons have manifested it that nuclear weapons are playing an increasingly significant role in the U.S. security strategy…

“Certain super military power, while urging non-nuclear countries to take non-proliferation obligations, simply to launch a new nuclear weapon development plan which will destroy the nuclear nonproliferation security environment. Its behavior of enjoying the rights while rejecting the obligations will only aggravate the conflicts between nuclear and non-nuclear countries and damage the world tranquility.”         

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