Seoul on Ice

Why is Washington stiffing South Korea?

Many commentators have criticized the Bush administration for its intransigence in the multilateral negotiations currently underway to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis, sparked in October 2002 when Pyongyang revealed a secret nuclear program in breach of a 1994 agreement. Most of the disapproval has been aimed at the United States’ refusal to deal directly with Pyongyang, insisting instead on six-party talks involving China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia, but the administration is being just as foolish in its dealings with Seoul. South Korea, which has the most leverage over Pyongyang, is the key partner in the negotiations and is crucial to any long-term solution. Unfortunately, the United States and South Korea are worlds apart in dealing with the North. The Bush administration can barely countenance the totalitarian regime and has taken a hard-line approach, while South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun believes rapprochement will open up the garrison state.

For the negotiation to succeed, a mediator is needed, someone who is trusted by both governments and understands the dynamics of the situation. But that someone just got pushed out of office. The departure of Yoon Young Kwan—the former South Korean foreign minister who was credited by some with stabilizing relations with the United States after President Roh won the election, partly based on anti-American rhetoric, in December 2002—spells trouble for Washington. This is yet another sign that the White House needs to rethink its diplomatic strategy in dealing with its key allies.

The Bush administration is largely to blame for South Korea’s turn toward more nationalistic and independent foreign policymaking. Yoon, a respected moderate internationalist academic, stepped down Jan. 15 after he was unfairly accused of excessive pro-Americanism. Some in South Korea complained he was unable to moderate Washington’s hawkish policy. Yoon’s departure is attributable partly to his endorsement of the deployment of peacekeeping troops to Iraq at Washington’s request last October, in the face of broad objections by President Roh, the Korean National Security Council, and the public in general. Yoon was able to send troops to Iraq in the end, but his successful maneuvering led some in the Blue House—the South Korean president’s official residence—to wonder aloud whether Yoon was Korea’s foreign minister or an agent of the U.S. secretary of state.

Although South Korea has urged the Bush administration to negotiate with North Korea, the United States has said repeatedly that it does not want to reward bad behavior and has stood tough (too tough in the view of some commentators, including Slate’s Fred Kaplan) with the North. But anyone who knew anything about North Korea would have predicted that it would come right back and restart its atomic program. Hoping to gain Washington’s support to negotiate with North Korea, South Korea sent troops to the internationally unpopular war in Iraq in March 2003, but the Bush administration has done next to nothing in exchange. The United States imposed a blockade to inspect shipments out of North Korea, and the Bush administration botched an incident in which two Korean schoolgirls were killed by a U.S. armored vehicle in Seoul. (For more on this, see this December 2002 “International Papers” column.) As a consequence, the Korean public has become ever more impatient with the Bush hawks and has clamored for independence from U.S. policies.

This anti-American sentiment has in turn been used by North Korea to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. Pyongyang has cleverly portrayed the United States as an imperial aggressor while the North is a brother to South Korea. And it’s working. Sook-Jong Lee, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, worried that this nuclear crisis threatens to dismantle the valuable 50-year-old U.S.-South Korea alliance, citing a South Korean poll that showed citizens of the south believed the United States poses a greater threat than North Korea. The gap is greatest among younger Koreans in their 20s, where 58 percent felt more threatened by the United States, while only 20 percent picked North Korea. “I think there is a very dangerous decline in supporting and believing the United States’ commitment to South Korea,” Lee told me.

Can the Bush administration solve the nuclear crisis alone? It can, but only if the White House wants to strike a half-baked deal to make the issue go away until after the November elections. Any viable long-term solution that includes a peace treaty and verified nuclear disarmament requires Seoul’s full cooperation. Although China may be the biggest provider of fuel oil to Pyongyang, South Korea has the most economic cooperation with the North, including economic assistance, trade, direct investment in economic zones, tourism, rail and road links, sports and cultural exchanges, and visits to reunite separated families. Seoul can withhold badly needed economic aid to the North, a policy shift that could bring North Korea into line. Such a shift would be more in tune with the Bush administration.

China is, of course, an important ally in reaching an agreement with North Korea, but any final settlement will require a huge financial commitment, because North Korea will never give up its nuclear program unless it receives both a security guarantee and massive economic aid. China won’t be responsible for all this economic aid, and it would be fiscally and politically infeasible for the United States to foot the bill in such a deal.

This is where South Korea comes in, picking up a big chunk of the tab. Michael O’Hanlon, an international security expert at the Brookings Institution and author of a book on dealing with a nuclear North Korea, said, “There can be no solution without South Korea since it is the most interested party, a close ally, and the country that would have to provide much of the aid and trade and investment and so forth in any deal.”

It’s clear that a military strike is out of the question: Such an attack would most likely lead to a war that would not only result in the deaths of tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties but also in multibillion-dollar losses, whose recovery America would have to contribute to. The financial disaster would also reverberate around the world if South Korea—the world’s 11th largest economy—collapsed in a conflict.

An interlocutor like Yoon was invaluable to the United States in bridging the split between Washington and Seoul, but he’s now gone. The Bush administration lost an important mediator by pressuring Korea to send troops to Iraq while doing little about North Korea. And the deployment is by no means marginal: South Korea’s troop commitment in Iraq is the third-largest after the United States and United Kingdom.

What the United States needs to do right now is listen more closely to what the South Koreans have to say and start negotiating with North Korea. The Bush administration should contemplate a grand bargain in which Pyongyang not only dismantles all nuclear weapons but also reduces the massive stores of conventional weapons aimed at the demilitarized zone. In return, the United States and its allies would offer economic aid, a non-aggression pact, and a peace treaty, finally ending the Korean War (currently only a truce is in force). Then Pyongyang could open up an office on Washington’s Embassy Row, and U.S. diplomats could drive their Fords in North Korea.