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    Korea
     Apr 5, 2008
Renewed urgency to rein in North Korea
By Donald Kirk

SEOUL - The United States ambassador to South Korea, Alexander Vershbow, corrected himself at once in remarks at a glittering dinner this week attended by some of the South's leading business people and diplomats.

"If," he began, "no, when," he interjected hastily, "the efforts of [US nuclear envoy] Chris Hill finally bear fruit," the newly opened Korea Center of the Asia Society in New York "will be one of the ties that helps to bring it about".

Vershbow was talking about the prospects for persuading North Korea finally to come up with a complete list of its nuclear inventory and get on with the next phase of disabling and dismantling its entire nuclear program.

Just what the richly financed Asia Society, with the support of an


 

array of huge Korean and American corporations, can do may not be clear, but one thing is certain. In a firestorm of the stormiest rhetoric to emanate from Pyongyang in more than 10 years, neither the US nor South Korea is giving up on bringing the North to terms.

Though a miracle of diplomacy may be needed to make that happen, Americans and South Koreans far prefer to talk in terms of "when" rather than "if" when it comes to following through on nuclear agreements carved out last year in six-nation talks in Beijing.

Could North Korea's latest threats, to turn South Korea "to ashes", really be serious? Do the North Koreans mean it when they talk about "an advance pre-emptive attack" to counter any notion of "a pre-emptive attack" from the South. And are they really thinking of another bloody shootout in the West or Yellow Sea when they accuse South Korean ships of "a brigandish act" of entering their waters in defense of the "northern limit line" that the North refuses to recognize?

As far as the Americans and South Koreans are concerned, at least publicly, they've heard it all before - maybe not lately, but in the not too distant past. In the face of all rhetoric, they're still turning the other cheek in hope that what they view as North Korean trash talk will fade after just a few more diplomatic tete-a-tetes.

In that spirit, Hill again is looking for a meeting with the North Korean nuclear envoy, Kim Kye-gwan, with whom he says he managed to lay out specific, if "confidential", ideas when they met in Geneva last month.

They didn't make "all the progress" hoped for, says Hill, but he likes to think the process may be at a turning point, about to come to a happy conclusion. The mood is infectious, at least among South Koreans in Seoul and in Washington. They're saying Hill, at present in Southeast Asia, will likely meet Kim next week somewhere in the region for what may be the climactic round.

"We're cautiously optimistic about a breakthrough," is the spin the Foreign Ministry put on the prospects for something really happening after a week of threats and insults from Pyongyang, including the first direct attack on newly elected President Lee Myung-bak himself.

While South Koreans were counting the number of times Lee was called "a traitor" and "an imposter" by Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency, Lee said such talk was "undesirable" and asked the North "to come to the dialogue table with a more sincere attitude". In the meantime, said Lee, he did not "expect the situation to deteriorate further".

Against all signs to the contrary from Pyongyang, Hill, while passing through Seoul, spread the word that "we're at a point where I think we can make progress in the near future" and predicted, "We will be able to get through this."

He made those remarks at the same Asia Society dinner at which Vershbow came out with his Freudian "if, no when", remark, but there was no overt sign of any differences between them. US officials denied that Vershbow will be leaving his post a few months early after having been somewhat less optimistic than Hill, who outranks him as assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific.

Hill made light of the North Korean rhetoric, finding common cause between the US and South Korea as brothers who have had to endure similarly worded barbs from Pyongyang.

"It's becoming kind of a fraternity of nations that's been attacked by the North Koreans," he said, but he believed "very firmly there's no way threats of this kind will have any impact in the future". Indeed, he went on, "As we go forward, we should do so with a renewed sense of confidence." After all, he reminded his sympathetic audience, "Everyone gets insulted by these people."

If the chances of a real breakthrough appeared slim, however, he did convey the need for a happy ending in a region that suffered through some of the worst wars of the past century, "We need to build a sense of community so some of those terrible things that happened in the 20th century not be repeated in the 21st century."

Although wars in Europe and the Chinese mainland may have cost more lives, Hill's words also had immediate relevance in South Korea in a society in which fears of a second Korean war are never far below the surface. The sense is growing that some kind of crisis may be inevitable - though North Korea's charge that "South Korea's conservative regime is driving the North-South relations to confrontation and catastrophe" has had little real impact.

The test of real response in the South to such words will come next week when voters go to the polls to vote for 245 members of South Korea's National Assembly - the remainder of the total of 299 seats to be appointed on a proportional basis by political parties depending on how many seats they win at the polls.

Lee Hong-goo, a former ambassador who was prime minister 20 years ago when North Korea promised to turn the South into "a sea of fire", was not impressed by the verbiage. "I don't think there will be a big impact on the election," he said. "The Korean public is not very astonished when North Korea makes a threat." His greatest concern is that voters are so apathetic that turnout will be low.

Candidates from Lee's Grand National Party are expected to win at least 150 seats at the polls, giving the party the authority to appoint more than half of those allotted on a proportional basis - and a solid assembly majority. At the same time, North Korea's economic concerns may be enough to keep the war of words escalating into something more alarming.

A report in the South by Hankyoreh, a left-leaning newspaper that is often critical of conservative policy, said North Korea was asking China for a large infusion of emergency food aid after holding back on its usual annual request for humanitarian aid from the South.

At stake is the all-important issue of face and pride. North Korea in its latest rhetoric has spurned the help that Lee has promised. Lee's demands for "reciprocity", including release of kidnapped fishermen and Korean War prisoners and verification that the North has given up its nukes, are clearly viewed in Pyongyang as nothing short of insulting.

The North would prefer, if current reports are accurate, to go through more hunger, to the point of cutting down the food provided even to the elite of Pyongyang, rather than ask the South for more aid at this stage.

But will the Chinese come to the rescue, as they did with troops in the Korean War when US-led forces were rushing to the Yalu River, about to declare a victory, before the Chinese drove them back to the South?

In a precarious stage in the bargaining, Hill repeated a mantra that he has said a number of times in recent weeks. "We're running out of time here," he said. "We don't have all day."

But what's the deadline, and when will time run out? To that question, neither the Americans nor the South Koreans have an answer.

Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.

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Lee stumbles out of the starting block (Apr 4, '08)

North Korea sends a missile warning (Mar 29, '08)

Pyongyang cashes in on US row (Mar 21, '08)


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