Playing out of tune

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Playing out of tune

South Korea and the United States have often been out of tune lately in terms of their policies on North Korea.

Last week’s events were slightly farcical. An official with the U.S. Defense Department told reporters that North Korea had proposed a bilateral summit meeting with South Korea. Seoul jumped at the news, prompting the White House to clarify that there had been a “misunderstanding” in the relay of information about recent inter-Korean affairs.

The uncoordinated solo acts late last month, however, were no laughing matter. President Lee Myung-bak announced a new formula to crack the North Korean nuclear predicament - a plan he dubbed the “grand bargain” - without prior consultation and synchronization with Washington.

U.S. officials tepidly brushed aside what Seoul revealed as ambitious and decisive nostrum, saying they knew little of the details. Startled Seoul officials said they had explained to their U.S. counterparts Lee’s proposal of offering the North massive economic aid and security guarantees in return for an irreversible end to its nuclear campaign, but that there may have been a hitch in communication. President Lee retained coolness, saying it didn’t matter if someone in the U.S. government hadn’t heard about his plan. But that someone was Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who coincidentally didn’t stop in Seoul during his recent tour of Asian capitals. Seoul and Washington had repeatedly assured the world of their rock-solid alliance, yet a few cracks have started to appear in their relations.

Korea and the United States have reiterated a coordinated stance on North Korean affairs since the North’s nuclear threat cropped up two decades ago. Still, Pyongyang detonated nuclear devices twice.

When the North conducted its second nuclear test in May, the two new governments quickly strengthened ties. The Obama and Lee Myung-bak administrations reiterated that they were tuning up their orchestrated effort to deal with the North, which proved effective in enticing unanimous support from five of the countries involved in the six-party negotiations to back new United Nations sanctions against the reclusive nation. But Seoul and Washington suddenly are out of sync as climatic bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang near.

North Korea alone will enjoy any signs of discord between the two. It can capitalize on the chance to make future disarmament negotiations more difficult. Seoul and Washington must now make sure they are playing in the same key.
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