[VIEWPOINT]Using oil for diplomatic ends

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[VIEWPOINT]Using oil for diplomatic ends

The admission by North Korea that it has an enriched uranium program has put the United States in a bind. On the one hand, Washington cannot stand still. To continue business as usual with Pyeongyang would be tolerating a violation of the Agreed Framework. On the other hand, to stop delivery of heavy fuel oil could endanger relations with South Korea, whose government prefers a softer line toward North Korea.

The United States has decided to end oil shipments to North Korea. Another option, however, is to halt the oil delivery to North Korea and divert it to South Korea. Seoul would then decide whether to keep the oil or send it to North Korea.

Such a decision by the United States would achieve several desirable policy goals.

First, it would reinforce South Korea's negotiating position. It would force Pyeongyang to talk to Seoul and make concessions if it wanted the oil. This should be prime objective of the U.S. policy since the main conflict is not between North Korea and the United States -- despite the North's missiles and weapons of mass destruction -- but between North and South Korea.

One way Seoul's position has been undermined has been Pyeongyang's ability to "go shopping" for deals with Washington and Tokyo while ignoring the South. During the 1993-94 nuclear crisis, North Korea was able to obtain an attractive deal from the United States through the Agreed Framework negotiations which excluded South Korea. Giving South Korea control over the heavy fuel oil would send Pyeongyang the message that it must make concessions to Seoul if it wants to obtain assistance.

Second, sending the fuel to South Korea would help prevent anti-Americanism in South Korea. Many South Koreans blame the United States' perceived hard-line stance toward North Korea for the lack of progress in North-South relations.

This is not a particularly rational reaction; regardless of what one thinks of the Bush administration, it is difficult to blame the United States for Kim Jong-il's unwillingness to reciprocate Kim Dae-jung's engagement policy. If the United States stops its delivery of oil, some segments of South Korean opinion will blame Washington for a deterioration in North-South relations.

If Seoul makes the decision, however, South Koreans will not be in a position to blame the United States. This is especially important during the presidential election when it is in the United States' interests that anti-Americanism not rise in South Korea.

Third, such a decision could help bridge the gap between South Korea and the United States. By strengthening the negotiating position of the South, the United States might make it easier for Seoul to take a less conciliatory approach toward North Korean provocations, thus narrowing the differences in approaches between Seoul and Washington.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and chairman of the Korea-Japan Luncheon Group.

by Robert Dujarric

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