Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

     Mar 7, 2006
Seoul and Washington closer to divorce
By Lee Kyo-kwan

SEOUL - South Korea and the US have drifted so far apart on North Korea policy there is now speculation the longtime partners are getting close to divorce.

Kurt Campbell, former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific, reportedly likened the two to a king and queen who live separately but pretend to be happy before their

subjects. The allies do not want to announce their divorce because it would have enormous consequences, he said at a seminar in Washington on February 27.

It is believed US officials no longer trust their South Korean counterparts on North Korea policy. Fueling that speculation has been the recent friction between Seoul and Washington over how to deal with US allegations North Korea is counterfeiting US dollars. While Washington has stepped up financial pressure on Pyongyang in an effort to defend the US currency, Seoul appears to have opposed such a move.

The US Treasury Department charged in September that Banco Delta Asia in Macau is one of the foreign financial institutions being used by North Korea to launder illegal money, including counterfeit currencies. The Treasury Department reportedly came up with a measure designed to prevent foreign banks with North Korean accounts from carrying out transactions with US banks.

So far, US pressure appears successful. South Korean banks have followed their Japanese counterparts in carrying out the US tactic - by last month the Korea Exchange Bank, Shinhan Bank and National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives had stopped all transactions with Banco Delta Asia.

However, unlike its banks, the South Korean government has been reluctant to support the US financial pressure on the North.

South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jong-suk last month said his country still needs to make a strategic judgment based on relations between North and South Korea over how much will it support the US measure against Pyongyang.

The government of President Roh Moo-hyun is known to have urged the US administration of President George W Bush to stop putting financial pressure on the Kim Jong-il regime.

Michael Green, former senior director in charge of Asia and the Pacific for the White House's National Security Council (NSC), said early last month that Seoul has sent Washington signals several times suggesting that the US lessen pressure on Pyongyang over the counterfeit issue.

Sending such signals seems to be in line with Roh's US policy. In his New Year's address in late January, the president said that if the US tries to solve matters with North Korea by methods aimed at the regime's collapse, it will cause a feud between Washington and Seoul. This suggests he sees US financial pressure on North Korea as a hardline scenario aimed at toppling the Kim regime.

Two weeks after Roh's address, friction between the two allies increased. South Korea and the US disagree over the origins of counterfeit US$140,000 found in April at the Namdaemun market in Seoul. Washington says it told Seoul the counterfeit dollars were printed in North Korea. But Seoul countered that it hadn't received any notice from Washington.

Since the US Treasury Department identified Banco Delta Asia as one of Pyongyang's money-laundering channels, most North Korean trading companies have suffered difficulties in foreign exchange transactions.

If the US measure aimed at preventing foreign banks with North Korean accounts from doing transactions with US banks is successful, nearly all North Korea's foreign-exchange transactions are forecast to be paralyzed, according to the diplomatic sources.

If such a scenario materializes, Pyongyang may have difficulty maintaining its political and economic system. North Korea as a result has called on the US to halt the pressure as a precondition of its return to the six-party talks on its nuclear program.

And if Pyongyang is seriously affected by the US tactics, Seoul's feud with Washington is likely to worsen.

Meanwhile, the number of South Korean officials voicing concern over US financial pressure is increasing. If US sanctions designed to contain North Korea economically work, there is a strong possibility of a severe diplomatic conflict between South Korea and the United States. Such a diplomatic split could be a death blow to the half-century-long alliance, diplomatic sources say.

Meanwhile, the US State Department insists pressure on North Korea and the six-party talks (involving the two Koreas, Russia, Japan, China and the US) are separate matters. This suggests that regardless of the alliance's future, the US will continue its pressure on North Korea to stop the country printing counterfeit US currency.

Speculation that the alliance is in trouble is also precipitated by Seoul's three-year objection to Washington's policy aimed at enabling US Forces Korea (USFK) to be moved about freely beyond the Korean Peninsula.

The US Defense Department since 2003 has called on the Roh government to allow US forces to be dispatched to regions near the peninsula - such as the strait between mainland China and Taiwan - whenever there is a security crisis in the region. The Pentagon calls the policy "strategic flexibility".

But the Roh government had refused permission, based on a long-standing agreement involving US forces based on South Korean soil, because of its deep worry that South Korea could be unwillingly involved in military conflict between the United States and China.

Seoul decided early this year to accept a limited version of the Pentagon policy of strategic flexibility. South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon and his US counterpart, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, signed an agreement in late January in Washington. According to the deal, the US is required to obtain permission from Seoul before deploying South Korea-based troops to other areas near the peninsula.

However, two weeks after the deal was signed, it ran into strong opposition within the South Korean government and the ruling Uri Party. Opposition is being led by lawmakers and some Foreign Ministry officials who have sought security policies more independent from Washington.

Uri Party Representative Choi Jae-chon produced a confidential NSC document showing that in late 2003 senior officials of the Foreign Ministry and the NSC sent Washington a memorandum spelling out their intention to permit USFK's strategic flexibility without Roh's permission. The document was made public with the help of some Foreign Ministry officials working in the presidential office who have reportedly advocated independent foreign policy.

It would appear that officials seeking independent foreign policy are accelerating their attack on their counterparts who have placed more emphasis on policy coordination with Washington.

With the South Korea-US alliance rapidly deteriorating, USFK is having difficulty securing training fields across the nation. US General Leon LaPorte last month expressed concern about the alliance's future in a speech before leaving his office as commander of both USFK and the South Korea-US Joint Forces.

"In the coming years, the ROK-US alliance will be tested," he warned, referring to South Korea by its official name, Republic of Korea.

If a conservative candidate supporting the alliance fails to win the Korean presidential election of 2007, the US is forecast to withdraw its forces from South Korea, according to diplomatic sources. In fact, speculation the allies' split may be imminent has begun spreading since Roh took office in 2003 - mainly because his government has officially sought much more autonomy from Washington in its North Korea and military policies.

Such a policy shift has contributed to widening the rift in the 53-year alliance. The split began with former president Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy, which advocates peaceful cooperation between North and South with short-term reconciliation in advance of eventual unification of the peninsula.

Kim, Roh's predecessor, provided Pyongyang with economic support. Washington's neo-conservative hardliners lashed out at the Kim government for weakening their efforts by economic containment to prevent Pyongyang from making weapons of mass destruction. The policy rift is believed to have led to North Korea beginning its highly enriched uranium (HEU) nuclear-weapons program in the 1990s.

James Kelly, then assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, told North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Kye-kwan during a visit to Pyongyang in October 2002 that Washington knew North Korea had an HEU nuclear-weapons program. Kim denied the accusation, though the next day North Korean First Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju admitted to Kelly that his country had the program.

Two weeks after Kelly left Pyongyang, the White House announced North Korea's admission. But Pyongyang denied acknowledging existence of the program and called on Washington to sign a non-aggression pact in return for abolishing all nuclear-weapons programs. Washington rejected the proposal.

Since the end of 2002, the Kim Jong-il regime has adopted brinkmanship policies such as withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Roh government as part of its effort to seek independent foreign policy, has refused to join the Bush administration's diplomatic and military pressure on North Korea.

For example, the Roh government so as not to irritate North Korea hasn't participated in the June 2003 US-led Proliferation Security Initiative to diplomatically and militarily prevent weapons of mass destruction from proliferating. The initiative is believed aimed at blocking North Korea's proliferation of fissile material and missile technology.

Seoul has also blocked Washington's plan to present Pyongyang's violation of the 1994 US-North Korea Agreed Framework on nuclear issues to the UN Security Council. North Korea has maintained that if the United States brings the issue before the council, it will regard the move as a provocation of war.

As proved by these disagreements in North Korea policy coordination, South Korea and the US seem to be having difficulty keeping a minimum alliance.

In South Korea, the progressive camp continues to seek a security policy much more independent of the United States regardless of concern over the weakening partnership, while the conservative camp strives to resurrect the struggling alliance.

The former maintains the current North Korean nuclear crisis originates from the US military goading the North. But the latter contends the South Korea-US alliance has prevented North Korea from provoking a war over the past five decades.

Arguably, the most important question for South Korea is whether it can succeed in peacefully solving the social and political conflict.

Lee Kyo-kwan is a Seoul-based writer covering Korean political and business affairs. He has worked for the Chosun Ilbo, the Korea Herald and the Sisa Journal.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

South Korea's fractious path ahead (Mar 1, '06)

East Asia's black sheep (Feb 18, '06)

Sanctions on Pyongyang will backfire
(Feb 16, '06)

North Korea, the 'Sopranos' state
(Jan 18, '06)

Seoul's North Korean dilemma
(Nov 23, '05)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110