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Building Unity on N. Korea

U.S. and Seoul may be moving toward agreement on how to deal in concert with Pyongyang.

May 26, 2003

As the United States decides how best to dissuade North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, it needs help from South Korea, home to 37,000 U.S. troops and site of a 1950-53 war. This month's Washington meeting between the U.S. and South Korean presidents went better than expected, with each side making concessions. That offers hope for a more unified policy when confronting the communists north of the demilitarized zone.

Relations between the United States and South Korea have been rocky since President Bush took office more than two years ago. He had a bad meeting with President Kim Dae Jung in Washington in early 2001; Bush found himself more suspicious of North Korea than was Kim.

Kim's successor, Roh Moo Hyun, also worried Washington. During his electoral campaign last year, Roh criticized U.S. policy toward Iraq and North Korea; two decades ago, he was a lawyer for union members and radical students opposed to the U.S. presence in South Korea.

But the two presidents appeared to get along well during their meeting. Policy should be the basis for relationships between nations, but if leaders also happen to hit it off, so much the better. Roh did not press Bush to rule out military force against North Korea. Bush reciprocated by saying he was confident a peaceful solution to the crisis with Pyongyang could be found.

Perceptions in Seoul and Washington remain at odds. Seoul worries about the United States provoking the North into starting a war that would kill millions of South Koreans. The United States worries about North Korea developing nuclear weapons and selling them to any buyer, including terrorists.

The Bush administration has two camps on North Korea.

One believes nothing will stop it from developing more nuclear weapons; it now is thought to have at least two. The other thinks economic aid and a U.S. guarantee not to invade can persuade Pyongyang to scrap its atomic weapons program.

Washington should keep talking with North Korea in an effort to get it to eliminate its nuclear weapons and accept international inspections to verify it has done so. The Bush administration also should keep pushing China, North Korea's main ally, to preach the no-nuclear gospel.

A top-level American diplomat went to meet with emissaries from Pyongyang in Beijing last month. U.S. officials said North Korea indicated a willingness to do away with its nuclear program if it got enough aid. That's worth exploring, while keeping in mind the North's record of duplicity. The United States will be in a better negotiating position if it has support from China and South Korea, as well as Japan and Russia.

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