[EDITORIALS]Treat Washington with care

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[EDITORIALS]Treat Washington with care

Following stern warnings from the United States against North Korea, the government of South Korea suddenly replaced Foreign Minister Han Seung-soo on Monday. The unexpected move raised concerns of a diplomatic chill between Seoul and Washington. The president of the United States, George W. Bush, will visit Seoul in 15 days to meet with President Kim Dae-jung to coordinate both countries' policies on North Korea. The question has been raised whether replacing the leader of the Foreign Ministry just before such an important summit was the wise thing to do.

The government said that replacing the foreign minister had already been decided during last week's reshuffle because all incumbent lawmakers holding ministerial posts were to be replaced. However, appointing a new foreign minister was delayed because Mr. Han was scheduled to meet with the U.S. secretary of state on Saturday, the government said. The government said its intent was not to reprimand Mr. Han for the worsening friction between Seoul and Washington.

Because Mr. Han also serves as the president of the UN General Assembly, the public doubted he could manage the heavy workloads. In fact, he has been criticized for his dealings with Japan last year, especially on the controversial Japanese textbook and talks to determine a fishing quota for saury. The public also raised concerns that Mr. Han failed to deal effectively with Beijing over the execution of a Korean charged with drug trafficking. The people had demanded earlier that Mr. Han be sacked. The timing ?with Bush's visit imminent and Washington's North Korea bashing on the rise ?is difficult to understand.

Some diplomatic and political watchers speculate that Mr. Han was replaced before the summit with Washington because he failed to stanch the stern words against the North uttered by senior U.S. officials. Even after Mr. Bush's State of the Union Address, in which the North was described as a member of an "axis of evil," U.S. State Secretary Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warned Pyeongyang. Analysts said that during the course of preparing the coming Seoul-Washington summit both sides showed undeniably different approaches toward the North. To make matters worse, Korea's newly appointed foreign minister is not an expert on diplomacy with Washington.

Therefore, the United States might believe that Seoul expressed its displeasure with Washington over its hard-line policy toward the North by replacing the foreign minister. If that is true, U.S. - South Korea relations, which have been strained since the launch of the Bush administration, will grow worse. Seoul should come up with diplomatic measures that will protect relations with Washington.

Neither Washington nor Seoul would benefit if the split over North Korea policies widens. If the United States keeps criticizing the North, the situation in the peninsula will rapidly become more fragile, and the South's engagement policy toward the North will no longer be effective. Therefore, Seoul should consider sending envoys to Washington to quell the discord and convince core figures in the Bush administration of Seoul's commitment to relations with the North. Since Mr. Bush's hard-line policy toward Pyeongyang will harm peace in the peninsula, Seoul's most urgent mission is mending the diplomatic crack through official and unofficial channels before Mr. Bush's visit to Korea. The government must remember that its policy toward Washington is a matter of grave concern and of national interest.
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