[OUTLOOK]A test of the allianceRecent events suggest that the United States and South Korea are acting more like allies again, reflecting in their decisions a greater sensitivity for their partner’s interests. President Roh Moo-hyun defied intense domestic opposition in affirming South Korea’s decision to dispatch troops to Iraq. President Bush similarly overrode critics within his own administration in authorizing Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to table a surprisingly forthcoming offer to North Korea in the six-party talks.
The United States welcomes international support in coping with the reconstruction needs of a beleaguered Iraq; South Korean authorities are equally pleased to see a more accommodating U.S. diplomatic posture toward North Korea. These decisions do not appear to have been linked in any kind of formal quid pro quo. But there does seem to have been an implicit tradeoff reflecting the spirit of reciprocity that is sorely needed if the alliance is to be revitalized.
Other interests, to be sure, were in play in these decisions. South Korea could scarcely renege on a public pledge to send troops to Iraq without casting doubt on the reliability of its government’s word. Nor could it submit to terrorist blackmail without inviting further extortionist demands and forfeiting a measure of self-respect. Beyond these considerations, I presume that South Korea has its own good reasons for making a tangible contribution to the reconstruction of a major oil-exporting nation. In the end, however, it makes good sense for South Korea to share the risks as well as the costs of reconstruction in Iraq ― America’s overriding preoccupation at the moment ― in order to enhance its influence over American policy toward North Korea ― Seoul’s preeminent current concern.
America also had its own good reasons for trying a more conciliatory tack in the six-nation talks. Senator John Kerry has been scoring points in the presidential campaign by claiming that the administration has nothing to show for its policy toward Pyeongyang over the past three years except a larger North Korean nuclear arsenal. The United States, moreover, has found itself increasingly isolated diplomatically, as Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing all pressured Washington for a more flexible negotiating stance.
Some critics dismiss the U.S. proposal as a mere tactical shift, and anticipate Pyeongyang’s rejection even as it “studies” the offer. Its significance should not, however, be underestimated. For the first time, the Bush administration is prepared to engage directly in substantive bilateral talks (within a multilateral framework) with North Korean representatives. For the first time, it is ready to support, or at a minimum not oppose, the provision of heavy fuel oil shipments by Japan and South Korea to North Korea before Pyeongyang has begun to dismantle its nuclear program. And it has reaffirmed its readiness to extend security assurances to the North on a provisional basis.
It is the provisional character of these concessions that prompts complaints from other critics. But why should outside powers be expected to give open-ended concessions to a nation that violated past non-nuclear commitments to the United States and South Korea, and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty?
If the North needs time to study the offer, fine. But it’s time for Pyeongyang to “show some leg” in these talks. An offer to “freeze” its nuclear program while emphatically denying any uranium enrichment activities does not cut it.
In the end, this is the test of our own alliance. It was forged to cope with the threat North Korea posed. It is unlikely to remain vital unless we can fashion and sustain a coordinated strategy for ending Pyeongyang’s nuclear activities and encouraging it to concentrate its scarce resources on the modernization of its economy and the welfare of its citizens.
* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford Universiy.
by Michael H. Armacost