[OUTLOOK]Take heed of Korea's real crisis

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[OUTLOOK]Take heed of Korea's real crisis

Viewed from America, recent news from Korea has gone from bad to worse. Reports of Pyeongyang's revived nuclear program are bad enough. At least equally distressing is the evidence of a growing rift between Washington and Seoul. Periodic friction has been a regular feature of U.S.-South Korea relations for more than 40 years. But in the past a shared sense of potential danger from the North facilitated timely policy accommodations. The current difficulties between our governments, however, expose sharply conflicting perspectives and policy reflexes on precisely the issues that have been central to our alliance.

American antipathy toward North Korean authorities has been reinforced -- indeed intensified -- by Pyeongyang's recent conduct, most especially its clandestine contravention of its non-nuclear commitments. While regime change in North Korea is not an avowed aim of the administration, it would certainly not lament its collapse. By contrast, South Korea's "sunshine policy" remains inspired by the hope that generous gestures toward Pyeongyang -- even if unreciprocated -- are warranted to encourage its gradual reform, or at least forestall its demise, with all the baleful consequences that might entail. In short, South Korea works to bolster and gradually change a regime in North Korea that the Bush administration evidently would be happy to see disappear.

For Americans, nuclear non-proliferation has assumed a higher priority after Sept. 11. The Bush administration never put much stock in its predecessor's attempt to buy off Pyeongyang's nuclear aspirations, believing that effort was laced with moral hazard. In the wake of the North's acknowledged violation of the essence of that agreement, it has little incentive to rely on new commitments from Pyeongyang. While South Korean authorities have expressed dismay about the North's recent nuclear activities, they appear less alarmed by a revitalized nuclear program in the North than by possible U.S. reactions to it. And if the United States is inclined to respond with sticks, South Korean officials favor the use of carrots.

American policy makers regard the presence of our forces on the Korean Peninsula as a valuable contribution to deterrence, and a bargaining chip for the United States and South Korea to play when serious, substantive peace talks between North and South Korea finally get off the ground. They tend at times to be less sensitive to the social and political burdens those forces present to the host country. For those South Koreans, who no longer see much to fear from the North, U.S. troops seem to be increasingly perceived as an inconvenience, a slur on Korean sovereignty and a source of interference in its politics.

Most disconcerting, perhaps, is the growing tendency of both governments to forge policy initiatives toward North Korea without adequate consultation with each other. The Bush Administration recently announced a policy of "tailored containment" toward Pyeongyang. President Kim Dae-jung promptly and publicly discounted its efficacy. News reports now suggest that Seoul is preparing to "mediate" differences between the United States and North Korea ?a suggestion that seems unlikely to flourish in Washington, since American policy-makers have assumed for half a century that the dispute in Korea is between the North and the South. If that is no longer the case, there is scant rationale for a military alliance.

Since the current trajectory of events serves only Pyeongyang's interests, it's high time for leaders in Washington and Seoul to calm down, take a deep breath, and return to fundamentals. Unless we get to the heart of these disagreements swiftly, we risk further erosion of the mutual confidence that underpins the alliance.

Discussions this week among members of the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group offer one timely opportunity to focus on the interests we share and a joint strategy for attaining them vis-a-vis North Korea. The dispatch of a South Korean presidential special envoy, which has been rumored in the press, would present another.

For Americans, the starting point of such discussions should be this: the United States can have no effective policy for dealing with North Korea unless it is reasonably aligned with South Korea's. The starting point for Seoul might be the reminder that if it treats U.S. policies as the "root cause" of current problems, or expects Washington to offer the North concessions to meet commitments it has already made, it is unlikely to win American support.

When the United States faced a crisis of confidence in its alliance with Japan in 1995, it reviewed the bidding with Tokyo regarding the appropriate size, location, and terms under which our forces functioned in Japan. Timely adjustments on both sides subsequently helped revitalize the alliance.

The time has perhaps come for a comparable policy exercise with respect to our military presence in South Korea. But the immediate priority is to develop a unified policy for dealing with the North.

* The writer, a former deputy secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, is the Shorenstein Distinguished Fellow at Stanford University.

by Michael H. Armacost
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