[OUTLOOK]U.S.-South harmony is first taskA visit to Seoul for the inauguration of President Roh Moo-hyun proved heartening. President Roh remains an unknown quantity in the United States, but he made a very favorable impression on me.
He revealed qualities Americans admire: intelligence, self-confidence, humility, eloquence, political savvy and clarity of purpose. His initial appointments included persons with noteworthy experience in foreign affairs and security policy. His emphasis on South Korea’s role in promoting a more integrated Northeast Asian economy was unexpected and intriguing. His appeal to the young was reflected in his resolve to promote political reform.
While his decision to persevere in his predecessor’s “sunshine policy,” was no surprise, his formulation of new guidelines for implementing that policy ― e.g. transparency, reciprocity, and bipartisan support ― suggest that he has learned from others’ mistakes. And his affirmation of the U.S.-Korea alliance, adapted to changing circumstances, was welcome.
Still, I returned with a keen awareness of the difficulties we will face in harmonizing our approaches to the North Korean nuclear challenge. Three particular sources of difficulty stood out.
One involves a central tenet of the “sunshine policy” itself, i.e., “zero tolerance for North Korean military provocations.” A renewed bid for nuclear weapons is about as provocative a step as one can imagine, and President Roh declared firmly that North Korea’s nuclear development activities “cannot be condoned,” and insisted that Pyeongyang “must abandon nuclear development.” Yet “zero tolerance” implies that there will be serious consequences if North Korean nuclear activities persist. No such consequences were spelled out. President Roh promised benefits for the North’s cooperation on the nuclear issue; it remains unclear what Seoul will do if Pyeongyang remains defiant. To some, it appears that South Korea is mainly interested in insulating its engagement with the North from the nuclear issue.
A second concern relates to the security assurances that Pyeongyang seeks and which Seoul has encouraged the United States to provide. While in Seoul I encountered repeated suggestions from members of the Millennium Democratic Party that Washington should “guarantee the survival of the North Korean regime.” President Roh was more precise in his inaugural remarks, urging “guarantees for the security of the regime.”
It is important to make a distinction between “state” and “regime.” It is possible that Washington could reiterate a pledge of “no hostile intent” of the sort provided by Secretary of State Albright to General Jo Myong Rok in October 2000. Senior Bush administration officials have repeatedly denied any intent to attack or invade North Korea, and could presumably enshrine such a pledge in a written form. But Americans would instinctively resist the idea that we should “guarantee the survival” of an anachronistic, Stalinist regime that has oppressed and impoverished its people. Perhaps this is a matter of semantics. If so, we need to clarify it promptly.
A third concern relates to the venue for eventual talks with North Korea. Seoul regularly urges the United States to initiate direct negotiations with the North; Washington expresses a preference for discussions with Pyeongyang in a multilateral framework. The Bush administration argues that Pyeongyang’s bid for nuclear weapons is not a bilateral problem but a challenge to regional security in whose outcome North Korea’s neighbors have at least as large a stake as we do. Pyeongyang has broken its non-nuclear commitments not only to the United States but to South Korea and to all other signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. If the nations most directly affected by the resumption of North Korea’s nuclear activities are engaged in the talks, moreover, they may invest more effort in assuring that future nonnuclear commitments undertaken by Pyeongyang are rigorously enforced. Indeed, one can make a good argument that multilateral security assurances extended by the United States, China, Japan, and Russia to both Koreas might be more appropriate and of greater value than bilateral security assurances conveyed by the United States to the North alone.
Most of the academics and politicians with whom I spoke in Seoul ― even those who conceded the merits of these arguments ― persisted in pressing for direct U.S. negotiations with Pyeongyang because they feared that delays in getting multilateral talks started would increase the risks of irretrievable North Korean steps across the nuclear threshold ― a legitimate concern.
The more immediate cause of delay in Washington, I suspect, is reluctance to enter negotiations with Pyeongyang without the leverage inherent in a common approach with Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and perhaps Moscow. Since the possibility of a common front is largely contingent upon harmonizing the views of Seoul and Washington, that latter task must be priority No. 1. And with a new administration in place in Seoul, it is time to tackle this job with real urgency.
* The writer, a former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs and ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.
by Michael H. Armacost