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Analysts Note Differences in US Allies Approach to North Korea - 2002-11-27

The United States, South Korea and Japan have called on North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, and have suspended fuel shipments to the communist state. Does this mean the three allies have put aside their differences and are now united in their approach toward North Korea?

Secretary of State Colin Powell said it was prudent to suspend fuel shipments to North Korea in the wake of Pyongyang's admission that it still has a nuclear weapons program, despite a pledge in 1994 to halt the program. In a recent CNN interview, Secretary Powell repeated that Washington and its friends and allies are putting pressure on North Korea.

"We have been very successful in bringing the Japanese, the Chinese, and, I would say, the Russians, also, and the South Koreans together on the strategy. So, the North Koreans now know that, as long as they are participating in this kind of activity, enriching uranium, they are not going to be able to solve their economic problems and problems of poverty," Mr. Powell said.

Bruce Cumings, a specialist on Korean issues at the University of Chicago, suspects the Bush administration is not getting as much cooperation as it would like, after the revelation about North Korea's nuclear program. "One assumes that they are trying to build an enriched uranium bomb, based on the information that the U.S. government has put out. This information has not done what it would have done during the Cold War, which is to completely unify South Korea and Japan and the United States in a united front against North Korea," he said.

Instead, Professor Cumings said, the United States is trying to persuade Japan and South Korea not to move forward with their engagement policies toward the North.

South Korea has been working on family visits with the North, and the two sides are also trying to reconnect rail and road links on the divided peninsula. Analysts say South Korea is likely to continue some level of engagement with the North, even if a more conservative president takes office after next month's elections.

Japan has engaged the North in talks aimed at normalizing relations, which would lead to substantial Japanese economic aid to Pyongyang. Talks have stalled over a dispute about Japanese citizens abducted decades ago by North Korea. The revelation that North Korea still has a nuclear weapons program presents a new stumbling block, but has not halted the engagement process.

Northeast Asia specialist Joel Wit, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Tokyo and Seoul are reluctant to pursue a hard-line approach to North Korea, because they would take the brunt of any North Korean aggression. "You could have predicted that the Bush administration would have an approach that's based solely on tough measures, and the South Koreans and Japanese have a much more nuanced approach that includes tough measures, but it also includes providing North Korea with some sort of face-saving way out of the current situation," Mr. Wit said.

President Bush has described North Korea as part of an "axis of evil," and Mr. Wit says, the Bush administration does not want to give North Korea a face-saving way out. But, he says, a different attitude may be seeping into the U.S. position, which currently is that North Korea should unilaterally and verifiably dismantle its uranium enrichment program, before Washington will sit down for talks with Pyongyang.

"You have recently signs that the administration is trying to negotiate without negotiating. And by that I mean, it's sending these signals through the media to North Korea, through public statements by the White House, through statements by Colin Powell, that we're not interested in attacking them. Moreover, if the North Koreans do the right thing on this nuclear issue, the prospect of a brighter future lies ahead. And part of that would be better U.S.-North Korean relations," Mr. Wit said.

Pyongyang says verbal assurances that Washington does not plan to attack North Korea are not enough. It points to a new U.S. doctrine about pre-emptive war, which says the United States should be prepared to take action first, as a defensive measure against a perceived adversary. Therefore, the North says, it wants Washington to agree to a non-aggression treaty.

Analysts say Pyongyang has closely watched the U.S. approach toward Iraq, and is convinced that it needs to be able to defend itself against possible American aggression. Professor Cumings says Washington is not likely to get the same kind of United Nations support for intrusive weapons inspections in North Korea as it has with regard to Iraq.

"I think, therefore, it's much more dangerous than Iraq, because it isn't clear what our allies would do, let alone China and Russia, in the event of a pre-emptive strike against North Korean nuclear facilities. So, it's a hair-trigger kind of situation, and it doesn't help the situation to have a lot of belligerent rhetoric emanating, not just from Pyongyang, but also from Washington," he said.

Professor Cumings predicts the Bush administration will come to understand that engagement is the only way to handle problems with Pyongyang. And Joel Wit says diplomacy will be the only way to get weapons inspectors back into North Korea. He says North Korea is likely to continue ratcheting up the pressure on Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, until they agree on a diplomatic solution.