[VIEWPOINT]Cockeyed optimism hurts Seoul

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[VIEWPOINT]Cockeyed optimism hurts Seoul

The U.S. State Department withdrew its offer to send a U.S. delegation to visit North Korea on Wednesday. Washington said that it did not receive a timely response from Pyeongyang to its offer and that the violent naval conflict in the Yellow Sea had created an unacceptable atmosphere. The lack of a response from Pyeongyang, under the circumstances, was a convenient pretext for postponing the talks.

The South Korean government, which had expected the Pyeongyang-Washington dialogue to help revive the stalled inter-Korean relations, is embarrassed at the situation. The administration had assured us that the Pyeongyang-Washington talks would take place despite the military clash in the Yellow Sea. The government did not give up, though; it said that it would make efforts to reschedule the talks.

Would the U.S. delegation have actually entered Pyeongyang and started a rapprochement between the two nations had the naval conflict not occurred? Could the talks have served as a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations as the government expected? Taking into account the relationship between the United States and the North after George W. Bush assumed office, the Korean government's hopes would likely have been dashed. The Bush administration had made clear that it wanted to talk with Pyeongyang, but it made clear that it was not interested in a courtesy chat about the weather. It wanted to deal directly with the military threats posed by the North, such as missiles and nuclear and conventional weapons. Washington became more determined to deal firmly with weapons of mass destruction as a crucial part of its post-Sept. 11 war against terror. But there is no sign from the North that it would cooperate with Washington in dealing with the issue of weapons of mass destruction. It is quite probable that the talks between the North and the United States, even had they proceeded on schedule, would have ended without progress.

The Bush administration refused to shed its strong mistrust of the North despite efforts by the South Korean government. Last week's military clash might have strengthened Washington in its conviction. But the United States will not call off the talks completely. Through government level talks, Washington wants to confirm the intentions of the two sides and seek concrete steps to narrow differences, but it does not trust the North or expect breakthroughs. In other words, the United States will return to the table in due time, but does not think the time is right at the present.

That is why it is unwise for the Korean government to try to persuade the United States that last week's military clash was not serious and urge them to dispatch a special envoy soon. The Bush administration and the South Korean government have taken entirely different approaches to North Korea, and that has been a source of discord between the two countries. In the February meeting between presidents Kim and Bush, two countries agreed to solve the problems of weapons of mass destruction through dialogue. But polite words do not mean the critical problems have been overcome.

The military conflict in the Yellow Sea could be a chance to strengthen the Seoul-Washington alliance, but it has had the opposite effect. The problem stems from the attitude of the Korean administration; it is acting irresponsibly and without objectivity in trying to persuade the Korean public and the Americans that the North can be trusted. It is clear that the incident in the Yellow Sea was premeditated, but Seoul wants us to believe that it was an accident. Is it reasonable to call for the continuation of the sunshine policy and urge the U.S. special envoy to travel as scheduled when sound of gunshots still linger in the Yellow Sea? That is no way to win the trust of the people and our allies.

No one is against conducting talks and cooperating with the North; engagement is still a valuable concept. But the government should not abuse or wrongly apply a policy that has received domestic and overseas support. Furthermore, it should not intermingle a public cause with a private cause centered on its own political interests. If the sunshine policy is buried at sea as one foreign commentator said, it is because the policy has been exploited for the wrong purpose.


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The writer is a professor of international law at Seoul National University.

by Paik Jin-hyun

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