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S. Korea to Offer Solution to Crisis

The incoming president will ask Washington and Pyongyang to both give ground, a spokesman says. The North remains defiant and accusatory.

January 04, 2003|Mark Magnier and Anthony Kuhn | Special to The Times

SEOUL -- The president-elect of South Korea plans to propose a solution to the North Korean nuclear scare under which both Pyongyang and Washington would step back and agree to concessions, a top aide said Friday.

Roh Moo Hyun, who will take office Feb. 25, expects to present his plan around mid-January, said Lim Chae Jung, the head of Roh's transition team, speaking on Korean television.

Lim declined to provide specifics, other than to say that officials would move carefully because of the high stakes. But the South Korean wire service Yonhap reported that one idea under consideration would have the U.S. offer a written guarantee of North Korean sovereignty and security provided that the Pyongyang regime first abandoned its nuclear development program.

"The issue is not nonaggression," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington. "The issue is whether North Korea will verifiably dismantle these nuclear enrichment programs."

The U.S. has "said on a number of occasions that we have no intention to invade North Korea, we have no hostile intent toward Pyongyang, and we are seeking, like others, a peaceful and diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issues," Boucher said.

Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton left Friday on a weeklong trip to Asia to discuss North Korea and Iraq. Boucher announced that Bolton will go later in the month to Japan, South Korea and China for more talks.

North Korea has rattled the world in recent weeks by expelling international atomic energy inspectors from its shores, disabling video surveillance cameras at nuclear facilities and threatening to pull out of a global pact limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.

South Korea's rather vague announcement Friday is the latest in a series of rapid-fire diplomatic initiatives by Seoul aimed at finding a solution to this crisis-in-the-making. South Korea dispatched Vice Foreign Minister Kim Hang Kyung to Russia on Friday amid hopes that Moscow might help persuade North Korea to back down. And Thursday it sent Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Tae Shik to China, North Korea's closest neighbor and ally, on a similar mission.

North Korea remained defiant Friday, however. At a rare news conference in Beijing, its ambassador to China, Choe Jin Su, accused the United States of being the aggressor in the standoff.

"We are forced to take self-defense measures against this threat to our national dignity and the right to existence," he said.

Choe also decried efforts by China, Russia and others to talk the isolated communist nation out of its nuclear plans. Those countries' time would be better spent, he added, either urging the U.S. to recognize North Korean sovereignty or else minding their own business.

Representatives of the United States, South Korea and Japan plan to meet in Washington on Monday and Tuesday to coordinate their strategy toward North Korea. Those sessions will be followed by a visit to East Asia by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly.

South Korea's recent diplomatic moves come as the Bush administration finds itself under growing pressure at home and abroad to explain why North Korea, with a confirmed weapons program, is less of a threat than Iraq, which has opened its borders to inspectors.

The U.S. has refused to negotiate with North Korea until the North gives up its nuclear ambitions, arguing that to do otherwise would reward bad behavior. This unwillingness to deal directly with the rogue state has left something of a vacuum.

China, the country that arguably has the greatest sway over North Korea, is hampered by divided objectives. On the one hand, it opposes a nuclear-capable North Korea, given fears that Japan might beef up its own arsenal in response. On the other, it's reluctant to push North Korea too hard economically or diplomatically, given the threat that China might be flooded with refugees. China may also want to see North Korea remain a buffer state.

"China's in a rather delicate position," said Paik Jin Hyun, a professor at Seoul National University. "But it will also play a key role in any resolution of this issue."

The legacy of Japanese colonialism in Asia from 1910 to 1945, along with Japan's tendency to follow Washington's foreign policy lead and political tensions at home, has precluded much initiative by Tokyo.

That has left few players other than South Korea to pick up the diplomatic ball. The incoming Roh government may also want to show a bit more independence from the U.S. in its dealings with the North, said Lee Dong Bok, a professor at Seoul's Myongji University.

North Korea, for its part, has sought to capitalize on South Korea's presidential transition and Washington's focus on Iraq, analysts say.

"We're seeing an effort by North Korea to manipulate the timing," said Scott Snyder, Seoul representative of the San Francisco-based think tank the Asia Foundation. "It's a wedge strategy."

By ratcheting up the pressure quickly, North Korea has sought to either force concessions or sow confusion. Attempting to exploit differences among Japan, South Korea and the United States is a time-honored North Korean strategy. The most recent example occurred in North Korea's New Year message, in which Pyongyang invited Seoul to join hands in opposing the United States -- an offer the South quickly rejected.

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Staff writer Magnier reported from Seoul and special correspondent Kuhn from Beijing.

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