[VIEWPOINT]U.S. must act decisively on Korea

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[VIEWPOINT]U.S. must act decisively on Korea

With South Korea's critical presidential election decided, the Bush administration's Korea policy is in need of a mid-course correction. Our five-decade-old alliance with South Korea is at low tide, with anti-Americanism rising. At the same time, the confrontation with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program is mounting. All of this is happening as the United States confronts Iraq. This dangerously volatile situation, unless properly handled by the United States, threatens to plunge Northeast Asia into a new era of instability, dangerously undermining American influence in a region critical to our national security.

This downturn of affairs on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone is not wholly of Washington's making. North Korea's drive to secretly develop nuclear weapons, coupled with moves to restart frozen nuclear reactors, has been an important reason for the heightening U.S.-North Korea tensions. Those tensions are now threatening to spin out of control, with neither Washington nor Pyeongyang showing signs of backing down.

The Bush administration's approach (rightly or wrongly) to freeze all dialogue with Pyeongyang until it gives up its nuclear ambitions, however, has fallen on deaf ears in Seoul. Both the South Korean government and public show little concern about Pyeongyang's truculence, and instead focus on an American military trial acquittal of two U.S. servicemen in the accidental deaths of two teenagers during military maneuvers. Symbolizing how much this event has hit a deep nerve of pent-up resentment at perceived American heavy-handedness, nearly 50,000 people demonstrated in Seoul over the past weekend in the largest show of anti-Americanism in at least two decades.

Something is wrong with this picture -- at a time when tensions with North Korea and the threat of conflict are rising, South Koreans are demonstrating against the alliance and many voted on their emotions rather than on a concept of the long-term interests of South Korea.

If this is not a signal to U.S. policymakers that something is wrong, then what is? Yet the Bush administration has been oblivious to these changes, distracted by events in Iraq. Even before the current crisis in the Middle East, it paid scant attention to the alliance with South Korea. Despite initial soundings about shoring up bilateral alliances in Asia, Bush officials undertook no major review of their Asia strategy. Moreover, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has not traveled to Seoul in two years for annual security consultations.

With the difficult turn of events on both sides of the DMZ, the United States cannot afford to take a "business as usual" approach. Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. The Bush administration should seize the opportunity presented by the election of a new South Korean president to make a fresh start. Among other tasks, this means inviting the new South Korean president to Washington as a springboard for repairing recently eroded relations. At a time when senior American officials are preoccupied with Iraq and the war on terrorism, it makes sense to appoint a Korea policy czar -- a prominent American who has the political stature, experience and authority to address the delicate situation on the peninsula today.

This individual would forge a common strategy to deal with the North Korean threat and to firm the U.S. alliance with South Korea. This person wou-ld also work closely with the new South Korean leadership on a joint strategy for dealing with Pyeongyang that combines Washington's nonproliferation objectives with Seoul's interest in inter-Korean reconciliation. The consequences of a crisis on the Korean Peninsula could be far more severe than America's problem with Iraq. The new czar would ensure a steady hand on the tiller at a time when the administration is preoccupied with the Middle East.

The United States has resorted to such a device before. In 1998, in the wake of North Korea's long-range missile test and the disclosure that Pyeongyang might have a secret nuclear facility, the Clinton administration responded to critics by putting former Secretary of Defense William Perry in charge of its North Korea policy. In his months in that office, he initiated a successful mid-course correction in U.S. policy. That crisis was much less urgent than the one we are potentially facing today.

History has shown that crises in Korea derive not just from tensions with North Korea but also from U.S. neglect of the peninsula and ad hoc policy. Focusing on the problem now may not only avert a crisis with North Korea, but with South Korea as well.

* The writer is a professor of government and D.S. Song-Korea Foundation chair at Georgetown University.

by Victor D. Cha

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