Korea’s Conservative Wants to get Cuddly with Washington

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.

For the past decade, South Korea has been governed by left-of-center presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, while, for most of that time, right-wingers held power in Washington. Despite the fact, there has been no rupture and important agreements, like the pending US-Korea free trade agreement, have been negotiated between liberals in Seoul and conservatives in Washington.

Now South Koreans have placed a conservative in the Blue House just as the American electorate seems inclined to elevate a left-of-center administration to the White House. Neither of the Democratic Party front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, 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. South Korea has to talk to North Korea and will continue to do so

New President Lee Myung-bak, who formally assumes office on Monday, Feb. 25, has made it a point to say he wants to return the relationship to the warmer status-quo ante, mostly due to economic concerns as much as security issues. 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 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 under 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 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 as not to provoke North Korea. This would include joining the US in a missile defense system, the Proliferation Security Initiative and OPLAN-5029, which was designed to prepare for the possible collapse of North Korea altogether.

Under Roh, South Korea opted to build its own low-key missile defense system independently of the U.S. It demanded – and the US readily agreed ‑ that a Korean general should have overall command of United Nations forces in the event of an attack and it stopped discussion of OPLAN 5029, with its military option for the U.S. and South Korea to move forces into North Korea should the regime suddenly collapse. (The Chinese were not thrilled at the prospect of US troops moving Douglas MacArthur-fashion closer to their border either.)

How much Washington will still champion these measures, especially if a Democratic president is elected in November, remains to be seen. The US is currently downsizing its forces in Korea on the basis of talks with the South. 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. US bases are also moving out of the Seoul area for provincial fortresses by 2012, a move that was agreed by both sides and will open up vast stretches of valuable real estate and park land in the metropolis.

Meanwhile, Lee’s first big test on 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 more forthcoming information on its nuclear weapons program that Pyongyang promised to supply but so far has not done and progress on human rights and other issues.

Most participants in the six-party nuclear talks, however, have taken the North’s delays in stride. There have been relatively few accusations of bad faith leveled against Pyongyang. Even hard-line US Ambassador Alexander Vershbow counseled patience. The US will persevere for “as long as it takes,” he said.

In truth, all sides seem 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 didn’t have the votes in the National Assembly to do it, or it might have just been a wild card suggestion aimed at gaining political leverage. No one is quite sure.

U.S. chief negotiator Christopher Hill told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that North Korea was had slowed work on dismantling its main nuclear 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 and the fact that the North cannot even absorb the supplies it has been given.

He went on to say that the priority for the US, in addition to destroying the plant, was to obtain production records for the plutonium. It wants a verifiable accounting to make sure that none has been diverted to terror groups or nations hostile to American 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 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 uranium program in 2002, using it as an excuse to end the 1994 Agreed Framework that had governed nuclear talks. 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.”

Pyongyang has flatly denied having a uranium program.