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Improving Washington-Seoul Relationship Considered Key to Solving Nuclear Crisis - 2003-02-21

As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell heads for Asia to discuss the North Korean crisis, some experts are saying he needs to work on improving communications with America's ally, South Korea.

Experts on South Korea's relationship with the United States say both countries have the same goal: peacefully ending North Korea's efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

The problem is, the two allies are coming at the problem from different perspectives, making it harder for them to speak with one voice.

Park Yong-ok, a retired South Korean army general and a professor at the National Defense University, explains the differences between Washington's and Seoul's approaches.

"[South] Korea seems to put more emphasis on inter-Korean reconciliation and maintenance of peace," he said. "On the other hand, for the U.S., setting up a global non-proliferation regime or anti-terrorism network will be more important."

The gap between the two capitals was made very clear a few days ago, when South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun said he would oppose any U.S. plan to destroy the North's nuclear facilities with a military attack. Although Washington says it wants to solve the issue diplomatically and has no intention of attacking North Korea, it also says no option can be ruled out if Pyongyang attempts to build nuclear weapons.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in Asia Saturday for meetings with the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea. He hopes to persuade them to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear program.

In South Korea, he will attend the inauguration of the new president, and then meet with Mr. Roh to discuss their differences.

The crisis began in October, when the United States said North Korea had admitted it had a nuclear weapons program, in violation of several international agreements.

Since then, Pyongyang has moved to reopen idled nuclear facilities capable of producing nuclear fuel, and has expelled United Nations nuclear inspectors. It says it is withdrawing from the global Non-Proliferation Treaty, and threatens to withdraw from the armistice signed at the end of the Korean War in 1953. It has warned that it would consider any United Nations sanctions imposed against it as an act of war.

The differences between Seoul and Washington can be attributed in part to geography. North Korea, though impoverished, has one of the world's largest armies, more than a million troops, and most of them are stationed near the border with South Korea. They are armed with an estimated 10,000 artillery pieces and rocket launchers, which could easily devastate Seoul.

Chun Yung-woo is a South Korean Foreign Ministry official who deals with the disarmament issue. He says there will be a huge price to pay if the problem cannot be solved through diplomacy.

Mr. Chun says South Koreans recognize that the United States would pay a price if the North attacks the South, because there are 37,000 U.S. troops here, and Washington is committed to defending the country.

But if war did come, he says, South Korea stands to lose millions.

"You have to keep in mind that Seoul is closer to North Korea than Washington is," he said. "We have reason to be more prudent in any steps that could cost lives to our people."

Several analysts say Washington is mindful of Seoul's opinions and of the risks its long-time ally faces. They say it is likely the two governments will soon resolve their differences.

Robert Einhorn, a disarmament expert at the Center of Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. research organization, thinks Secretary Powell's visit will start a new effort by the incoming Roh Administration and the Bush Administration to build a common policy.

"I think we can use the weeks and months ahead to see if we can narrow any differences that exist in the South Korean and U.S. approaches to the North Korean problem," Mr. Einhorn said.

Professor Park at the South Korean National Defense University says that failing to do so could be disastrous. North Korea would like to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington, he says; it is time the allies resolved the differences between them.