SEOUL — The recent shakeup in Seoul’s foreign policy and security team in the aftermath of the Washington summit represents a double effort to patch up relations with the United States, while persuading North Korea to come back to the bargaining table. Both tasks require supreme diplomatic skill.

The appointment of Han Seung Soo as the new foreign minister highlights President Kim Dae Jung’s desire to get back into Washington’s good graces, after a pointless spat over national missile defense. Both Russia and the U.S. put Seoul on the spot and, by trying to please each with the right spin on NMD, wound up displeasing both. But because Seoul was never enthralled with the project — South Korea had long been threatened by North Korean artillery and short range missiles — it badly underestimated Washington’s attachment to it. Han’s main job will be to repair the damage and regain Washington’s trust.

For the latter task, returning Lim Dong Won to his Unification Ministry post gives the main responsible for fleshing out Kim’s vision the opportunity to complete the summit scenario sketched out at Pyongyang — the return visit of North Korean leader Chairman Kim Jong Il to Seoul. He must convince the Kim that the two men have an overriding interest in a second summit as successful as the first to keep inter-Korean rapprochement going forward. The problem, however, is that the chairman — who is due in Moscow in mid-April — may have his own agenda.

While Washington may think that Seoul let down the side by seeming to side with Russia, things look different in Seoul. Here, a strong South Korea-U.S. alliance means that Washington needs to encourage Seoul’s Sunshine Policy, refrain from demonizing and castigating Kim Jong Il and clarify its policies as soon as possible.

For the U.S., two principal questions are pending. On the missile question, is Washington prepared in the near term to deal substantively with the North where the Clinton administration left off? Or will go-slow become no-go?

The second question concerns the reduction of the conventional threat. This is vital inasmuch as tension reduction and confidence building are an integral part of four-party talks. And it is of direct concern — and of greater importance than missiles — to the South.

Some argue that such reductions are the wrong place to begin since the forces dug in along the DMZ constitute the North’s first line of defense and are therefore probably the last thing to change. For the U.S and the South, however, North Korean forward deployment is the conventional equivalent of MAD (mutually assured destruction) and is key to the emergence of a new security environment and peace regime on the peninsula.

The larger question is whether Seoul and Washington see eye-to-eye on the goal: reducing conventional arms, removing them or leaving them in place indefinitely, thus guaranteeing that North Korea remains a permanent enemy and a perpetual threat. This is where U.S. and South Korean policy appear to diverge.

While Kim Dae Jung is committed to removing the Cold War structure, the present U.S. administration is nixing a peace declaration that was to have been a centerpiece of the second inter-Korean summit. To add to the confusion, Kim’s own Defense Ministry has designated North Korea “the primary threat,” complicating matters still further.

The cornerstone of the South Korean-American alliance is the 1954 mutual security treaty, which is designed to deter North Korea and protect and defend South Korea from attack. The last thing the alliance was designed to do was engage the North; this is the cause of much of the present policy confusion.

But engage to what end? For the South, North Korea is both a deadly rival and a potential political partner. It is different for the U.S. Even when relations are normalized and economic sanctions are eliminated, the former foe will not become a newfound friend. There will always be the other Korea, the one the U.S. created in its own image and to which the U.S. is bound by a close and long-standing alliance relationship.

The alliance must be supple enough to evolve, to make the necessary structural adjustments in role, mission and force structure in tandem with new and verifiable political arrangements negotiated between the two Koreas. The alliance cannot be a straitjacket to which such arrangements must be made to conform. Only in this way will the U.S military presence be seen as support for, rather than a hindrance to, inter-Korean rapprochement.

Koreans want to unify their peninsula. Well before the U.S. entered the Korean War under the banner of U.N. collective security, it looked to the United Nations to accomplish the task of Korean unification following the failure of the Soviet-American Joint Commission to create a Korean Provisional Democratic Government. While the Korean War eclipsed that goal — and made security the paramount concern — it did not eliminate it. Whether reconciliation or ultimately reunification that goal can now be achieved in a different context by the real parties — not foreign patrons — remains to be seen but surely they deserve the chance.

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