WASHINGTON - The news last week that U.S. intelligence satellites had picked up signs of intense activity around North Korea's nuclear power plant at Yongbyon has ratcheted up the U.S. standoff with Pyongyang another notch.
U.S. officials are warning that North Korea is fast-approaching the ”red line” that would make this a full-blown national security crisis: the reprocessing of spent fuel rods from the Yongbyon plant into weapons-grade plutonium.
Even many Democrats warn that such a development would require a strong response from Washington, beginning with an appeal to the U.N. Security Council.
”Once that plutonium is reprocessed, the genie is out of the bottle,” Samuel R Berger, former President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, told a conference on U.S.-Korean relations sponsored by the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University in late January.
In response to the events, South Korea's President-elect Roh Moo Hyun is sending a special envoy to Washington this week to discuss the situation with the Bush administration.
Roh's emphasis on negotiations and engagement with North Korea, however, will contrast sharply with the Bush administration's insistence that Pyongyang must first end its nuclear programme before the United States will agree to talks that could lead to economic and energy assistance.
And that division, analysts believe, reflects a deepening split between the United States and South Korea that could greatly complicate a final settlement ending the hostility between Pyongyang and Washington.
The gap is so wide that some U.S. conservatives, for years the bastion of support for the U.S. military alliance with South Korea, are beginning to call for U.S. troop withdrawals and other changes in the alliance structure.
”A new doctrine of abandoning South Korea is emerging in the United States,” said Chung-in Moon, a professor of political science at Seoul's Yonsei University and an advisor to South Korea's National Security Council.
Moon, speaking at a forum last week on Korea sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, said the rising anger among U.S. conservatives ”raises cause for concern.” Roh, contrary to perceptions held by many in Washington, is not anti-American but rather an ”extreme pragmatist''.
In his comments both before and after the December presidential election, Moon said, Roh has consistently pressed for a fundamental reduction of tensions with North Korea and close consultations with the United States.
His caution reflects the fact that ”Korean society is very much divided over the role of U.S. forces in Korea.”
Moon quoted recent polls showing that, for the first time in history, a slim majority - 50.9 percent - supports the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea, while 96.2 percent believe the Status of Forces Agreement guiding the legal status of U.S. troops is unequal.
But despite those expressions of discontent, Moon argued, the majority of South Koreans support the continuation of the U.S.-South Korean alliance until some kind of multilateral security arrangement is created in North-east Asia.
William Drennan, deputy director of the research programme at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who served in South Korea, took a sharply different view of the divide.
Because President-elect Roh and his followers have adopted a policy of ”unconditional engagement with the North,” Drennan said, he sees ”a crisis in U.S.-ROK (Republic of Korea) relations” that is worse than any differences that existed during the regimes of previous South Korean leaders Syngman Rhee, Park Chung Hee or Chun Doo Hwan.
Pointing to the recent wave of demonstrations and vigils protesting the acquittals of two U.S. soldiers who killed two Korean schoolgirls while driving a U.S. military vehicle, Drennan said South Koreans have exhibited the ”largest and most sustained wave of anti-Americanism in 50 years”.
The protests are significant, he said, because ”for the first time since 1987, the middle class has come out and joined with the radical fringe of Korean society”.
Recent attacks on Americans in South Korea, Drennan said, have ”gotten the attention of the American media and created an anti-Korea backlash''. As a result, South Korea ”is running the risk of alienating a key base of support that has always defended the alliance.”
The internal divisions within South Korea about the alliance were expressed by three recent Korean visitors to Washington.
One view, representing the conservative side of South Korea, was offered by two former South Korean ambassadors to the United States: Kim Kyung-Won, who was ambassador from 1982 to 1988, and Hyun Hong-Choo, Kim's successor in Washington and a former foreign policy aide to former President Roh Tae Woo.
They spoke at the Hopkins conference marking the 50th year of the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
The other view, representing the pro-labour leftist wing of South Korea, was presented by Kwon Young-Gil, the minority candidate in the recent presidential election who was in town last week.
The ambassadors seemed almost nostalgic for the Cold War days when the United States and its junior partner in Seoul stood together against North Korea. Both endorsed taking steps - such as negotiating a U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement - that would re-ignite and solidify that alliance into the future.
Kim disagreed sharply with Koreans who see North Korea as a partner in South Korea's quest for peace. South Korea's new political leaders, charged Kim, have been deceived and become ”intoxicated” with the perception of the end of the Cold War, and recently ”the gap between rhetoric and reality has widened''.
To his chagrin, ”the public saw North Korea as no longer a threat but a partner for reconciliation. Those who saw it differently are branded anti-national, anti-unification reactionaries,'' he said. Once people believe the North Korean threat does not exist, ”there's no need for U.S. troops,” Kim said.
Hyun picked up on Kim's theme, saying that ”as long as there is disagreement” between Seoul and Washington on North Korea, ”there can be no common strategy''.
Kwon, speaking a few days later at a forum organised by the Friends National Committee on Legislation, a Quaker group, said his Democratic Labour Party and its supporters want ties of ”equality and independence” with the United States, a proposal that ”stems from the perception that war is always around the Korean peninsula''.
Kwon said the current crisis could be resolved with mutual arms reductions on both sides, setting the basis for a peace treaty involving South Korea, North Korea and the United States. ”Then we should prepare for the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea” and its replacement by a multilateral security system, he said.
Although Kwon's views do not represent anywhere near a majority in South Korea, they are much closer to Roh's philosophy rather than those of ambassadors Kim and Hyun. They underscore how deeply split South Korea is today, and the ever-increasing distance between Washington and Seoul.
Copyright 2003 IPS