SEOUL, South Korea — Call it a breakthrough or a mirage, South Korean leaders seem less than overjoyed by the Obama administration's deal announced with North Korea yesterday.
Just two months after the death of Kim Jong Il, US negotiators have convinced his son's regime to halt its nuclear and long range missile programs. In exchange, the US agreed to provide 240,000 tons of food aid.
You'd think the South Koreans would be celebrating. After all, like his predecessors, South Korea's conservative president, Lee Myung Bak, had been trying to get the North to back down on nukes for the last four years.
But the Seoul government appears far from pleased.
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Although South Korea and the US are normally close allies, particularly concerning the rhetorically hostile regime in Pyongyang, Wednesday's White House announcement gave the impression that Lee's government had been left out of discussions entirely.
US envoy Glyn Davies briefed Seoul's foreign ministry after spending two days with North Korea’s long-time envoy, Kim Kye Gwan, in Beijing. In response, the ministry expressed polite appreciation, but stressed that North Korea needed to “resolve the nuclear issue in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.” That message signaled pessimism that the North would honor its word any better than it has in previous deals.
President Lee is under intense pressure to back the deal, anxious simply to save face. Koreans initially applauded his hardline approach, but he doesn't have much to show for it, so his popularity has waned. His party faces a severe test this year, in April's National Assembly elections, and in December's presidential vote.
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As South Korea's foreign ministry put it, North had “agreed to implement the pre-steps” that South Korea had called for “in an effort to create an environment conducive toward resumption of six-party talks.” Those talks, aimed at ending the North's nuke program, were last held in Beijing in December 2008.
That careful choice of words shows the South's skepticism over the deal. Rather than a breakthrough, the sense is that the North could resume testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles at any time -- after all, that's how Pyongyang has reacted in the past.
There are, in fact, some real benefits to the deal. It clears the way for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to return to the Yongbyon nuclear complex, ostensibly enabling them to determine the status of the nuclear program, and how far it’s gone toward producing a warhead ready for use in a war.
But as far as the South is concerned, the agreement to halt firing of long-range missiles is meaningless to the South, which is within range of short-range missiles. North Korea has test-fired two long-range Taepodong missiles, first in August 1998 and again in April 2009, before exploding its second underground nuclear device in May 2009.
Another concern for Seoul is whether the US will press for removing sanctions imposed after those missile and nuclear tests. South Korea’s government is unlikely to favor their removal, and would be hard-pressed to resume food aid, shipped in massive quantities to North Korea before Lee took office in February 2008.
In response to its declining poll numbers, the ruling has even changed its name from Hanara, Grand National, to Saenuri, New Frontier.
Whatever the name, party's tough approach is under fire. At a recent nuclear security conference, the Saenuri leader, Park Geun Hye, said bluntly: “North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons will not be tolerated.” She also stressed “unequivocally, that military provocation cannot be tolerated under any circumstances.”
Meanwhile, Park’s arch-foe, Han Myong Seok, leader of the opposition Democratic United Party, blamed the “hard-line stance” of President Lee for having “reduced the role of the Korean government to that of a bystander in the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue." She said the Lee government bears the blame for a policy that “has failed miserably,” and called for a return to the engagement policies initiated by presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who ruled from 1998 to 2008.
Under Korea’s constitution, Lee cannot run for a second term. Park Geun Hye, daughter of the long-ruling South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee, who was assassinated by his intelligence chief in October 1979, is expected to be the ruling party’s candidate for president.
Hye, who turned 60 this month, visited North Korea nine years ago and met the North’s then-leader Kim Jong Il. Since Kim’s death in December, however, she’s been the target of criticism for having displayed what the ruling party paper Rodong Sinmun called “the dictatorial spirit” of her father.
At the nuclear conference, Park said, with North Korea “insisting that possession of a nuclear arsenal was the greatest achievement” of Kim Jong Il, “it would be very difficult to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.”
Park acknowledged that much depended on the outlook of the new North Korean “supreme leader,” Kim Jong Un, third son and heir of Kim Jong Il.
“The new leadership in North Korea is standing at a critical crossroads,” she said. “They have to make a decision whether they will pursue a policy of coexistence and cooperation with the international community, including South Korea.”
Opposition leader Han, who served as prime minister under Roh and then lost narrowly for mayor of Seoul in 2008, promised that if her party wins, they “will start improving relations between the two Koreas with the aim of resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.”
Park proposed a "Korean Peninsula Trust-Building Process" that would encourage North Korea to be a responsible member of the international community.
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