[OUTLOOK]Bridging U.S.-Korea differences

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[OUTLOOK]Bridging U.S.-Korea differences

Each day has new surprises as the North Korean nuclear menace escalates. Last Friday, Pyeongyang disclosed its intention to reactivate the radiochemical laboratory in Yeongbyeon and resume operation of an atomic reactor. There seems little doubt that the regime is set on churning out plutonium, an ingredient of a nuclear weapon.

So what then is the strategy of our own government to counter the threat?

From the very beginning of the crisis, officials in Korea emphasized cooperation with our American and Japanese allies, but international obser-vers are increasingly pointing out that Korean society has recently departed from tradition to put on a staunchly anti-American suit. The American press corps evaluates the Korean leadership as increasingly critical toward the United States, bent on knitting a new relationship of parity between Seoul and Washington.

American journalists point out that the Korean leadership has different views on the North Korean nuclear issue than those of President George W. Bush. Far from isolating its embattled neighbor, Seoul advocates en-gagement and negotiations with Pyeongyang by continuing its inter-Korean economic cooperation and civil exchanges.

Increasingly, North Korea seems to be exploiting this gap. Behind the brinkmanship rests the shrewd calculation that the United States probably will not attack North Korea as long as Seoul rejects any escalation of tension on the peninsula. As a matter of fact, the gulf between the Korean and American approaches to this nuclear issue creates many opportunities for the reclusive regime to capitalize on. The more unyielding and tenacious North Korea becomes, the deeper it can expect to drive the wedge.

Therefore, the first step in resolving this controversy would be to restore close relations between Seoul and Washington. It would undermine Korea's credibility to chatter on about the strength of the alliance between the two countries without first attempting to mend Korean-American relations; the entire world is well aware of our disagreements.

Finding a common footing between the two countries must start with a thorough understanding of the respective positions.

Korea needs to escape its narrow scope of regarding the issue from only a regional angle to embrace a more global outlook. It needs to understand that the United States deals with this nuclear threat from a nonproliferation standpoint and dreads the prospect of North Korea's nuclear technology landing in the hands of terrorists through the international black market.

Considering the ease of smuggling a small nuclear weapon into American territory, it seems only natural that its government would spare no efforts to contain the threat.

Then have Korean officials reached the same conclusion? Our government, while denouncing any production of nuclear weapons, continues to insist that this issue should be resolved through dialogue and peaceful channels. We appreciate this position. From the perspective of people who live on the Korean Peninsula, avoiding war is a cause that is at least as important as nonproliferation.

So the United States must fashion a sound policy that incorporates this dilemma of the Korean people. American policy-makers must be keenly aware that Korea is simultaneously pursuing a conflicting goal not out of a lack of judgment but because the hard realities surrounding our home embody that contradiction.

North Korea demands negotiations with the Bush administration, but the United States is refusing to talk, wary that Pyeongyang will request a fee for renouncing its nuclear ambitions as soon as the Americans approach the negotiating table. A repeat of the 1993-1994 situation lacks appeal to the Americans.

But the South Korean government wants to persuade the United States to sit at the negotiating table with North Korea. If that is the case, it is necessary for the South to take part in the international efforts to apply pressure on the North.

It would be wise to maintain a stance of strategic ambiguity about such pressures. For Seoul to declare in advance that isolation and pressure are ruled out would only reinforce Pyeongyang's bet that it need not concede anything.

by Kim Kyung-won

* The writer is former ambassador to the U.S. and the chairman of the Institute of Social Sciences.

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