SEOUL — It is difficult not to compare the Seoul summit between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and its sequel in Washington between Kim and U.S. President George W. Bush, given both countries’ long history and deep involvement in Korean affairs. The stark contrast in the tone of two summits itself was particularly striking.

The Seoul summit was a highly symbolic and carefully prepared affair, largely successful in terms of policy goals (reaffirming the Russian-South Korean partnership and expanding the framework for economic cooperation) except for an ambiguous reference to national missile defense in the joint communique. By contrast, the Washington summit succeeded in muting Seoul’s previous preference for diplomacy over NMD. Any real difference between the two capitals on the issue was fixed for the moment with compromise wording: We’re for whichever works best, diplomacy or defense.

But it was less successful in other respects. Diplomacy is not only about priorities and choices, but also about preserving options. Sadly, that message was lost during the remainder of the Washington summit, which veered badly off-course over North Korean policy.

In contrast to Seoul, the Washington summit appeared premature, poorly prepared and at times awkward. Nobody said it was going to be easy. Selling sunshine to an American president who has just taken office and has probably yet to be briefed in-depth on Korea was going to be a tough sell to begin with.

Further, Bush doesn’t trust North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Who does? But his frank, rather than reflective, off-the-cuff remark — “I have some skepticism about North Korea” — was more suited to the campaign trail than a summit. There was no disguising the heavy blow that caught Kim off-guard.

A skeptic is one who doesn’t believe that something desirable can be achieved; here, that “something” is reaching an agreement with North Korea on missiles. But if that can’t be done, sunshine won’t work because the two policy goals, reconciliation and removing the security threat, are inextricably linked. However, the message decoded from Washington read: “We hear you, but cutting a deal with Kim will be difficult, if not impossible. Anyhow, good luck with sunshine; we support you, but we’re hedging our bets.” At that point, the South Koreans switched to damage control, pledging to a group of Korean experts to pursue “comprehensive reciprocity,” or security assurance for arms reductions and aid flows.

Yet to be heard from is Kim Jong Il. His emissaries were due in Seoul last week for the fifth round of high-level ministerial talks, but bailed out at the last moment. No one knows why, but one thing is clear: Kim Jong Il doesn’t have to worry about driving a wedge between Washington and Seoul. Rather, Kim Dae Jung has to do some hard thinking about how to remove it.

Sunshine can’t be sustained without U.S. support and it’s now up to Kim Dae Jung to dispel Bush’s skepticism while avoiding an expected spring chill from the North.

For all the talk of close policy coordination and preserving the South Korean-American alliance, it is better to be clear about differences in policy positions and why they can’t simply be papered over at summits. It’s hard to see how a “perception gap” could grow into a policy schism to the disadvantage of both allies’ North Korea policies. This is where the fabric of the South Korean-American alliance is stretched thinnest and the most work needs to be done.

Not to be overlooked in the confusion, however, was the historic nature of the Kim-Bush summit. For the first time, the two nations had to confront the question of how best to engage North Korea, not merely constrain it. Unfortunately, it opened up a Pandora’s box of questions on how best to engage the North, and that is likely to keep diplomats hard at work for time to come.

What are those differences? At the most fundamental level, the reasons for engaging Pyongyang at all. For the United States, it is primarily a question of global security: stopping the missile exports and removing a potential nuclear threat, however distant, to the homeland. For South Korea, it is repairing the division of a nation in hopes of ending the Cold War structure on the peninsula.

In this enterprise, the U.S. and South Korea are wary partners pursuing parallel — but not always compatible — agendas and interests. Washington has a security position to preserve — regionally and globally focused — that transcends the peninsula and its complexities. In the shorter term, Washington and Seoul have yet to settle on a common yardstick for measuring reciprocity, making policy coordination that much more difficult. While the measuring rod doesn’t have to be identical, policy coordination depends on narrowing the gap enough so that engagement can be productive.

In Washington, both sides took refuge in emphasizing the centrality of preserving the South Korean-American alliance, which has lasted more than half a century. The question now is whether it will be flexible enough to support South Korea’s aspirations for reconciliation and reunification and find common ground on what constitutes reciprocity from Pyongyang, as well as accommodating South Korea’s new relationships with old adversaries, such as China and Russia, while maintaining tripartite coordination with Japan. That will be the true test of whether this unique alliance can last another half-century.

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