Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Can Lee Save the Alliance?

It is hardly a secret that the U.S.-South Korea alliance has been seriously strained in recent years. The main reason, of course, is that the politics of the two countries have been out of sync for some time and may continue to be out of sync.

For the past decade, South Korea has been governed by left-of-center presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moon-hyun, while, for most of that time, a right-of-center administration held power in Washington.

Now the South Korean voters have placed a conservative in Blue House, just as the American electorate seems inclined to elevate a left-of-center administration headed by either Sens. Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama to the White House.

Neither of the Democratic Party front-runners has had much to say about Korean affairs (nor has purported Republican nominee John McCain), other than some vague platitudes about the need to talk with adversaries.

That has become mostly irrelevant in the case of North Korea, since, after years of stonewalling, Washington is now talking with Pyongyang and negotiating with Kim Jong-il in a meaningful way, not just using the six-party talks as a means of stalling.

Now comes South Korea’s new President Lee Myung-bak, who formally assumes office on February 25, and who wants to return the relationship to the status-quo ante. Lee is expected to meet President George W. Bush in Washington in April, after the National Assembly elections.

The meeting ought to go more smoothly than the one in 2001, between Bush and Kim Dae-jung. Kim (Bush’s first foreign visitor) had been assured that his government and the new administration were on the same page regarding North Korea, only to have the rug pulled out from him in a very public and humiliating way by an administration in full flush “Axis of Evil” mode.

Yet Lee will find a lame duck administration that is far less involved with the Korea question than it was earlier on. The irony is that Lee might want to push for a harder line than Bush.

Lee will be much more receptive than was his predecessor to reviving certain areas of military cooperation that Roh preferred to either duck or go at independent of the U.S. so not to provoke North Korea. This would include joining the U.S. in a missile defense system, joining the Proliferation Security Initiative and reviving OPLAN-5029.

Under Roh, South Korea opted to build its own low-key missile defense system around the Patriot missile independently of the U.S. It demanded that a Korean general have overall command of United Nations forces in the event of an attack and stopped discussion of OPLAN 5029.

The latter contains military options for the U.S. and the South to move forces into North Korea should the regime suddenly collapse. (The Chinese were not thrilled at the prospect of U.S. troops moving Douglas MacArthur-fashion closer to their border either.)

How much Washington will still champion these measures, especially if a Democratic Party president is elected in November, remains to be seen. The U.S. is currently downsizing its forces in Korea. Where there were once 37,000 troops, there are now 28,500, and this number will fall to 25,000 by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Lee’s first big test concerning its new North Korea policy will come soon after he takes office. That concerns South Korea’s annual gift of fertilizer for the spring planting season in North Korea.

The new president has pledged to tie such aid to more reciprocal concessions from North Korea, including, presumably, more forthcoming information on its nuclear weapons program that Pyongyang promised to supply by the last day of 2007 but so far has not done so.

Most participants in the six-party talks, however, have taken this delay in stride. Outside of the usual neoconservative circles, there have been relatively few accusations of bad faith levied against Pyongyang. Even hardline U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow counseled patience. The US will persevere for “as long as it takes,” he said.

In truth, all sides seem to be grateful for a break as they tune up their negotiating stances. South Korea, of course, is in limbo as it awaits its new president and presumably a fresh negotiating team. The Chinese, too, are in the process of appointing a new chief negotiator.

The North is standing pat, confused over some of the mixed signals it is getting from Seoul. For example, Lee proposed eliminating the Unification Ministry ostensibly as part of a general downsizing of government. He changed his mind after realizing he doesn’t have the votes in the National Assembly to do it.

U.S. chief negotiator Christopher Hill told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that North Korea was on a work slowdown in the job of dismantling the reactor and other facilities at Yongbyon in protest over slow delivery of promised fuel oil.. They have one shift working instead of three. He said delays in fuel shipments were due to logistical problems

He went on to say that the priority for the U.S., in addition to destroying the plant, was to obtain production records for the plutonium produced by Yongbyon. It wants a verifiable accounting to make sure that none has been diverted to terror groups or nations hostile to us interests.

That may prove easier to obtain than a resolution of the question of whether or to what extent the North Koreans have used uranium enrichment (HEU) as a pathway to a bomb. That would involve fairly large climb-downs for both Washington and Pyongyang.

After all, Washington made a huge issue out of North Korea’s purported HEU program in 2002, using it as an excuse to end the 1994 Agreed Framework. That allowed the North, critics say, to obtain enough plutonium for six to ten bombs. It would be hard now to say, “sorry, it was all a mistake.”

At the same time Pyongyang has flatly denied having any such program or any intention of having such a program, despite evidence in published accounts that it was at least dabbling with the process by purchasing some aluminum tubes to make into centrifuges and possibly some blueprints.

One person who could shed some light on this conundrum is that global trafficker in nuclear materials, Pakistan’s Abdul Qaadeer Khan. But he’s not talking.


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