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2007/01/01

[轉載] Critics fear Seoul is losing clout in efforts to rein i

 

[韓國中央日報] January 01, 2007 http://joongangdaily.joins.com/200612/31/200612311756388109900092309231.html President Roh Moo-hyun envisioned at the beginning of his term that he wanted South Korea to play the role of a "balancing force" in the region, and sent Lee Jong-seok, his unification minister at the time, to Washington to explain exactly what that phrase meant. The trip, by the originator of the idea, was meant to convince perplexed Washington officials that it didn't mean a fundamental change in relations between the two countries. And then people waited for something to happen. "We still don't know what that was all about," said one diplomatic source recently. The incident reflects well the struggles of the Roh administration in trying to develop an independent diplomatic position free from Washington's influence but still depending on it for security guarantees. And recently, in light of the North Korean nuclear crisis and especially the Oct. 9 nuclear test in North Korea, observers say reality has come home to roost in Seoul. Not that President Roh hasn't worked feverishly to show the public that Seoul is more than a rubber stamp on the U.S. alliance. From the beginning of the administration, the U.S.-Korea relationship has been crash-tested, as during negotiations over the relocation of U.S. military installations, the transfer of wartime military control of South Korean forces and the recurring haggling over Seoul's financial contribution to the upkeep of U.S. military forces here. Although details of all those measures remain to be settled, the key decisions have been made, and the alliance has survived, although it has arguably been a bit bruised. The coming year should see less turmoil than last, when even senior Korean officials like Ban Ki-moon, then the foreign minister and now secretary general of the United Nations, admitted openly that Washington may have had some grudges against Seoul. Seeking to establish a legacy for his presidency, President Roh's attempts to evade Washington's embrace have been thwarted at least in part by North Korea, whose actions have limited Seoul's diplomacy to a passive role. Several analysts here believe that straitjacket has only tightened because the administration is unwilling to adopt a clear and well-articulated strategy, especially toward North Korea. "The reason Seoul is losing its role is that it is not taking the necessary thorough measures against the North," said Kim Tae-hyo, a North Korean specialist at Sungkyungwan University. "There are the inter-Korean projects such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Kumgang tours that Seoul could use as leverage. Seoul has not punished the North for its nuclear test and lost an opportunity to demonstrate to Washington that it's on the same page." Mr. Kim said that reluctance by Seoul to use the tools it has is also the reason Pyongyang can afford to ignore Seoul. South Korea took one initiative in 2005 when during the fourth round of the six-party talks in Beijing it proposed to provide 2 million kilowatts of electricity to the North if Pyongyang agreed to a deal under which it would dismantle its nuclear weapons and programs. But observers say so much has changed since then that the offer no longer has much meaning. "Since the North's nuclear test, the chance for South Korea to carve its role actively has evaporated," said Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University. Right now, he continued, maintaining a close South Korea-U.S. alliance was about the only thing left for Seoul to do to ensure a meaningful role in the nuclear negotiations. But even that opportunity may be going by the boards. "Had Seoul agreed to participate more actively in the Proliferation Security Initiative, we would look at a solid front between the United States and South Korea," Mr. Koh said. And Seoul's support of a UN resolution on North Korean human rights had also put a strain on inter-Korean relations, he continued. "Now the South has lost something with both Pyongyang and Washington. The last round of the six-party talks has clearly shown who the main actors are." After Pyongyang's nuclear test, Washington urged Seoul to participate in a program to curb international trafficking of weapons of mass destruction. Seoul refused, citing the danger of raising tensions on the peninsula still further if it did. A government official, speaking on background, admitted that Seoul's role was indeed limited. But he argued that within its limitations, the country had done its best. "We can still help to narrow the differences between the United States and the North. But a final decision on what to do will fall into the hands of those two countries," he said. "Seoul could become more isolated from the talks watching from the sidelines," a diplomat said, also refusing to allow his name or nationality to be used. "Bilateral contacts between the United States and the North had already started before the last round of six-party talks and for the North, that's what was important. It does not need the South, nor does is consider it a serious dialogue partner in regard to the nuclear issue." Seoul's relationships with other countries involved in the nuclear talks, such as Japan and China, also have some rocky elements, although their main basis is economic linkages rather than political. But there are problems. The year 2005 marked the 60th anniversary of Korea's independence from Japanese colonial rule; both countries designated it the "year of Korea-Japan friendship," with hopes of burying some of the mutual enmity between them. It didn't work. Territorial disputes over the Dokdo islets, known as Takeshima in Japan, reached a new height and the perceived historical distortions in Japanese history textbooks made things worse, as did visits by the prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, to the Yasukuni Shrine where leading Japanese war criminals are enshrined. But with Mr. Koizumi out of office, things might improve. Foreign Minister Song Min-soon just visited Japan in what many believe was a mission to lay the groundwork for a visit by President Roh Moo-hyun. The president has refused to meet his Japanese counterpart since Mr. Koizumi's last visit to the war shrine. Relations between China and South Korea continue to improve as both sides are trying to maximize the economic benefits of their ties. Bilateral trade volume increased from $79.4 billion in 2004 to 100.5 billion last year. Some issues, such as China's treatment of North Korean asylum seekers and the history of the Goguryeo dynasty, which China claims is part of Chinese history, are being contained. As the host of the six-party talks, China will try to manage the North Korean nuclear crisis so that its economic interests as well its political ones are advanced. In its 2006 diplomatic white paper, the Foreign Ministry states that the country's approach to the nuclear crisis is to try to strengthen the South Korea-U.S. alliance and its relationship with the North. Perhaps it can, but with the breakdown of the latest round of six-way talks last month and the danger of a second nuclear test by the North very real, Seoul's diplomacy may again be tested. "If a second nuclear test is conducted, we will stand at a crossroads," one South Korean official said. "The logical approach would be to participate in the Proliferation Security Initiative and make clear to the North that there are limits. We don't want to face such a situation. It would be a diplomatic nightmare." by Brian Lee



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