US, Seoul parting ways over North
Korea By Donald Kirk
SEOUL -The more US officials claim to be
getting along just fine with South Koreans, the
more sharply their differences emerge on anything
and everything to do with North Korea.
top American diplomat on North Korea, Christopher
Hill, talked up US-South Korean rapport so much at
a recent luncheon of the American Chamber of
Commerce that one might have thought the two
allies agreed totally on such hot-button issues as
nuclear weapons, counterfeiting and the benefits
of the industrial park at Gaesong just across the
Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
No way, however, are the United States and
South Korea in synch on any of these topics. In
fact, the chasm between the two
widening constantly and soon may be unbridgeable.
The differences emerge at every twist and
turn in the complex, convoluted process of
bringing North Korea back to six-party talks in
Beijing on giving up its nuclear program. Hill
made a huge concession to South Korean
sensitivities when he signed off on September 19
to the infamous "statement of principles" under
which, sure enough, the North said it would
abandon its nukes.
The great flaw that
renders the statement meaningless except as a
document to point to from time to time is that it
also promises that all the signatories will review
the supply of direly needed energy to the North
"at an appropriate time". No sooner was the ink
dry on this piece of paper than North Korea
reverted to its demand for nuclear power plants,
as promised in the 1994 Geneva framework
agreement, before doing a thing about halting its
program for building nuclear weapons.
fact is, as Hill later acknowledged, he agreed to
this document so the United States would not
appear as the odd man out, the spoilsport
responsible for blocking any agreement at all. He
was under strong pressure from the veteran South
Korean diplomat who was then the South's chief
negotiator at the talks, Song Min-soon. Song, who
had gotten to know Hill when they both were
ambassadors to Poland, now has moved on - and up -
to the highly influential post of national
security adviser, one of President Roh Moo-hyun's
At his talk before the chamber
Hill let everyone know how friendly he was with
Song. He joked that Song had been promoted since
the last round of talks while he remained where he
was, assistant secretary of state for East Asia
and the Pacific.
The fact they get along
so well personally, though, has done nothing to
rid South Koreans of the sense that the United
States is deliberately sabotaging the talks by
raising the issue of North Korean counterfeiting.
Why now, Koreans ask, and why won't the United
States just drop the topic long enough for North
Korea to return to the table?
Hill has an
easy answer for that one. He said in Washington
this week he was just waiting for North Korea to
return to its seat at the table, but was not about
to engage in the one-on-one talks that North Korea
has frequently demanded. North Korea, meanwhile,
refuses to attend another round of six-party talks
while the US Treasury Department acts to stop
counterfeiting, beginning with moves to stifle
Macau's Banco Delta Asia from serving as a conduit
for North Korea's alleged funny money.
Hill and Song can put on a show of mutual
admiration, the same cannot be said for relations
between US officials and Lee Jong-seok, the
unification minister. Lee, responsible for a wide
range of direct dealings between North and South
Korea, has no direct American counterpart - a fact
that appears to give him wide latitude in
criticism that reveals the depth of differences.
True, he remarked at a meeting of the
National Unification Advisory Council, the United
States had shown "no signs" of suddenly shifting
its policy from diplomatic efforts to military
deterrence - a code word for the dreaded
"preemptive strike" that North Korean often
accuses the United States of planning. South
Korea, he warned, would oppose any such shift.
Since the United States, bogged down in
Iraq and Afghanistan and facing bitter criticism
at home for military policies, is in no position
to attack North Korea, Lee's harping on this theme
reflects an overall leftist effort here at casting
the United States in the role of the bad guy in
bringing about North-South reconciliation.
Seoul - particularly Lee and Roh -
disagree most sharply on South Korean economic
policies, including aid for North Korea.
Washington believes South Korea should demand to
know where the food and fertilizer it gives to the
North is going and should refuse to give it
This issue is not just
a rallying cry of American neo-conservatives,
accused of exploiting human rights abuses in the
North as part of their own agenda.
Rights Watch, dominated by former Clinton
administration people, came out with a report this
week that said North Korea had reversed its
reformist policies and was again banning the
private sale of grain. The grain, Washington
advocacy director Tom Malinowski said, was going
to the elite, not the millions who needed it most.
North Korea, "has gone back to precisely
the same set of policies that were a primary cause
of that terrible disaster" of the 1990s in which
at least 1 million people starved to death, said
Malinowski, a former speech writer for former
president Bill Clinton's secretary of state,
Against this view, Lee
said "at least since 2000, when we began providing
assistance to the North, no one there has been
starving to death".
He also had a ready
response to US accusations that South Korea has
shown no concern for human rights in North Korea,
a topic that it avoids publicly by never raising
it in North-South talks and abstaining from
motions in the United Nations Security Council and
General Assembly condemning North Korea for its
abuses of its own people.
South Korea has
accepted more than 8,000 refugees from North Korea
while other countries are "attempting to save
face" by taking in small numbers, Lee said, a
clear reference to the United States, which has
just begun accepting a few North Koreans.
The worst difference, though, in terms of
both economic relations and North Korea may focus
on the Gaesong industrial zone.
Korean officials, including Lee, have portrayed
the zone as an opportunity for North Korea to reap
some of the benefits of capitalism since about
6,000 North Korean workers are toiling away for
South Korean companies. They're paid US$57.50 a
month, a fortune by North Korean standards, and in
a few years the complex will become a regional hub
hiring half a million workers for international
companies, according to the project's South Korean
The Americans frankly regard
all this hype as nonsense. They say no workers see
the money that's paid into North Korean accounts.
They believe they're toiling away for almost
nothing, living under terrible conditions, clothed
and fed just enough so they'll be able to go on
These charges, publicized by Jay
Lefkowitz, a New York lawyer appointed by
President George W Bush as his part-time envoy on
human rights in North Korea, not only incense the
Unification Ministry but cloud the future of a
free trade agreement on which the United States
and South Korea begin negotiations in June.
The South Koreans want products made in
Gaesong included as "made in the Republic of
Korea", South Korea. The United States wants them
off the table - that is, out of the talks. They're
made in North Korea, say the Americans, and we
can't consider them, especially since the workers
obviously cannot unionize and North Korea refuses
to let the United Nations' International Labor
Organization and other groups see what the workers
are really earning, on what terms and conditions.
Such differences as these range far beyond
the highly publicized arena of nuclear weapons,
fears of a preemptive strike or demands for
overhauling the US-South Korean military alliance.
The alliance itself, however, clearly
fraying, is also at risk. The United States and
South Korea differ most publicly on what at this
stage is an abstract issue - who should be in
charge of South Korean troops in case of war.
Ever since the darkest days of the Korean
War, the United States has assumed that an
American general would be in charge of what are
still called "United Nations forces". That's a
reference to the anachronistic "United Nations
command" that was formed after the North Korean
invasion in June 1950 when the Soviet Union
boycotted the Security Council session that
formally put the UN at war.
States has repeatedly rejected South Korean
insistence that South Korean troops in time of war
should not revert to American command. The US view
is that only one general can take charge in a war,
and the United States, with all the means of
modern war at its disposal, would have to rescue
South Korea as it did in 1950.
the United States again ride to the rescue? US
forces are pulling back, in a controversial
decision, viewed with alarm by some Koreans, to
reposition its forces well south of Seoul rather
than on the historic invasion route between North
Korea and the capital. The United States is also
reducing the number of bases while cutting down
its forces from 37,000 two years ago to 29,500
today to 25,000 at the end of the decade.
Bottom line, both Americans and South
Koreans do not expect to have to use any of these
troops in another war here. US-South Korean
differences focus most sharply on North Korean
nukes, human rights and trade issues.
the fear remains that these issues are insoluble -
and eventually change, however unpredictable, is
Kirk has been in and out of Korea since