SEOUL - The United States is talking tough but not tough enough for South
Korean leaders when it comes to standing firm against North Korean entreaties
to sit down and talk.
South Korea's worries about the US position were clear when President Lee
Myung-bak met Friday with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the last
appointment his five-day swing through the capitals of Northeast Asia.
After Gates expressed qualified openness to negotiations with North Korea, Lee
reminded him of the need to settle the North Korean nuclear issue before the
North celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of its late "Great Leader"
Kim Il-sung in April 2012. An official at the Blue House, the center of
power here, said Lee emphasized the issue after Gates had said renewed talks
with North Korea were possible if the North ceased "dangerous provocations" and
took "concrete steps" to meet its obligations.
Strong though Gates' words may have appeared, South Korean officials found them
upsetting for one major omission. They said nothing specific about longstanding
demands for North Korea to show signs, signals, or a polite mention if nothing
else, about its nuclear program as a prelude to renewing six-party talks that
North Korea has called for "with no preconditions".
South Korean officials are scarcely hiding their misgivings as US President
Barack Obama primps and preens to receive China's President Hu Jintao at the
White House on a state visit with all bells and whistles on Wednesday. The
basic message from Seoul to Washington: South Korea wants Obama and Hu to get
serious about getting rid of North Korea's nukes.
South Koreans know very well Hu will focus on renewing six-party talks sans
"preconditions", as North Korea is demanding, and are again beseeching the US
to stand fast by its Korean ally. Hu confirmed South Korean worries in written
responses to questions by the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post in which
he credited "joint efforts by China and other parties" for bringing about
"signs of relaxation" of tensions.
Why not "engage in active interactions", resume "dialogue and consultation" -
and "move forward" all in accordance with the joint statement of September 19,
2005, calling for "an appropriate solution to the Korean nuclear issue" and
"lasting peace and stability on the peninsula".
The view from the Blue House can be paraphrased as we've heard all that stuff
before, nothing worked, so who's to think it will work now? The only question
here is whether Obama and company will fall for it. Or, more exactly, might the
US, after all the nice talk about the enduring nature of the alliance, try to
persuade South Korea to back down from its demands for North Korea to apologize
for the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea in November and the
sinking of the navy corvette the Cheonan in nearby waters in March.
Or, since North Korea has proudly boasted of shelling Yeonpyeong, how about
apologizing for that incident, in which two South Korean marines and two
civilians were killed? That much, at least, the Blue House believes North Korea
can do. As for the sinking of the Cheonan, in which 46 sailors died, no
one expects North Korea suddenly to 'fess up for the deed, in which it goes on
denying any role.
"North Korea needs to settle the issue of provocations," said Hahm Chai-bong,
director of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, suggesting that one apology,
for the Yeonpyeong shelling, might suffice. And then, what is still less
likely, he added, "North Korea should go back to previous freezing" of its
That phraseology no doubt means no more tests but offers no guarantee the North
won't go on enriching uranium for the Yongbyon nuclear complex, fabricating
ever more nuclear devices on a brand new 20-megawatt reactor that the North
showed off to American nuclear physicist Siegfried Hecker in October. The
output of that reactor would be in addition to the dozen or so warheads already
produced at the old five-megawatt plutonium reactor in the same complex.
Then, almost incidentally but crucial to South Koreans, there's the question of
inter-Korean dialogue. While calling for renewing the six-party talks, last
held more than two years ago in Beijing, the North is saying nothing about
preliminary talks with South Korea. The North's position has been, we'll talk
to the South about trade, family visits, tourism, but we're only dealing with
the US on the nuclear issue or a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War.
The purpose of the talks all along has been to negotiate an end to North
Korea's nuclear program, but influential Koreans are sure North Korea has no
intention of abandoning its nukes. The construction of a new reactor has
convinced everyone here that North Korea, by returning to talks, may put off
more incidents for a while but will do nothing to resolve to get rid of its
Gates, meeting South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, did nothing to
reassure Koreans by saying that diplomatic engagement should begin with talks
between North and South Korea and six-party talks could resume only if North
Korea showed it could be "productive" and "in good faith".
Gates' remarks came after fence-mending stops in China and Japan. In three days
in China, he sought to reopen communications with military leaders upset by US
arms sales to Taiwan. In Japan, he defended the need for the US to keep 49,000
troops in the country for defense against both North Korea and China, which he
warned might "behave more assertively toward its neighbors" if US troops were
Incredibly, Gates may have gotten his messages across to the Chinese and
Japanese more effectively than he did in South Korea. Defense Minister Kim,
standing beside him, said pointedly "strong force is the only way to deal
effectively" with the North - a view not echoed by Gates.
Former US nuclear envoy Christopher Hill, who negotiated with North Korea
during the presidency of George W Bush, insisted, however, that getting the
North to do away with its nuclear program remained the top priority. "We cannot
walk away from that," Hill said. "We really do not have the option of leaving
North Korea to have its nuclear weapons."
Hill, in a talk at the Asan Institute, defended the record of the six-party
talks in getting North Korea to shut down the five-megawatt reactor but said
the North Koreans "lied on their declaration" about uranium enrichment. "We
need more than talks," he said. "The North Koreans have demonstrated they did
not deal with the process seriously."
Korean officials are especially convinced North Korea has no notion of giving
up its nuclear program in the run-up to the centennial of the birth on April
16, 1912, of Kim Il-sung, who died on July 8, 1994. Kim's son and heir, Kim
Jong-il, suffering from a variety of ailments, is believed anxious to display
the country's strength while preparing for his son, Kim Jong-eun, who turned
either 28 or 29 on January 8, to succeed him.
"This year is an important time in resolving inter-Korean issues," President
Lee was quoted as telling Gates. "I hope South Korea and the US will cooperate
and do their best to settle the North Korea issue" - a phrasing that appeared
to show less than full confidence in US solidarity on the issue.