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     May 6, 2006
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.

The 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

is 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.

The 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 top aides.

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.

If 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 without guarantees.

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.

Human 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, Madeleine Albright.

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.

South 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 directors.

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 working.

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.

The United 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.

But would 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.

But the fear remains that these issues are insoluble - and eventually change, however unpredictable, is inevitable.

Journalist Donald Kirk has been in and out of Korea since 1972.

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

Seoul and Washington closer to divorce (Mar 7, '06)

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

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

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


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