Seoul fears Obama and Gates are going wobbly on North Korea

Tuesday, January 18, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

By Donald Kirk

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 U.S. position were clear when President Lee Myung-Bak met Friday with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the last appointment of 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 presidential 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S., 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 nuclear program.

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 U.S. 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 nukes.

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 U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. In Japan, he defended the need for the U.S. 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 U.S. troops were withdrawn.

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 U.S. 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-Un, who turned either 28 or 29 on Jan. 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 U.S. will cooperate and do their best to settle the North Korea issue" a phrasing that appeared to show less than full confidence in U.S. solidarity on the issue.

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