x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

US unhappy with Seoul's proposal for Pyongyang

The South Korean president's plan to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue during his trip to New York was met with a cold response from the US.

BEIJING // When the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, announced his "grand bargain" to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue during his trip to New York last week, it was met with a cold response from the United States that threatened to sour diplomatic ties between the long-time allies. But beneath the surface, analysts say, there is a deeper complexity to the multilateral coalition, which is meant to be dealing with North Korea's recalcitrance, in which different countries are jockeying for leadership. In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on September 21, Mr Lee proposed South Korea's plan to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue. It involves offering massive economic aid and security guarantees to North Korea if Pyongyang gives up its nuclear ambitions first. "We must have a comprehensive and integrated approach to fundamentally resolve the North Korean nuclear issue," he said. "Through the six-party talks, we must first dismantle the core component of the North Korean nuclear weapons programme and we will then be ready to provide North Korea with security assurances, as well as international assistance. This is what we mean by a 'grand bargain'." Surprisingly, the United States, South Korea's staunch ally, gave a chilled reaction to Mr Lee's initiative. When he was asked to comment on the South Korean president's new plan, the US state department spokesman, Ian Kelly, responded evasively, saying the plan was Mr Lee's policy and "these were his remarks". Kurt Campbell, a US assistant secretary of state, was more blunt, saying he was "not really familiar" with Mr Lee's plan, which he said had not even been mentioned during a meeting he had with the South Korean foreign minister the day of the president's speech. South Korea's media made the disagreement headline news. Many newspapers saw the fact that Mr Campbell, the highest-ranked US official dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue on a working level, was unfamiliar with Mr Lee's proposal indicated "a sign of trouble" between the two allies. The two governments went into diplomatic face-saving mode to downplay the incident. But more candid feelings about how Washington felt about Mr Lee's speech came one day later. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior government official told The New York Times that the South Korean approach was "far-fetched". "Washington is dissatisfied," said Shi Yinhong, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing. "The South Korean president's 'grand bargain' proposal was done without enough pre-consultation with the United States. So, there is a little tension over the 'grand bargain' between the two countries." Some believe that the South Korean proposal was frowned upon by Washington because, in July, Mr Campbell had already announced the "road map plan" - the Obama administration's own comprehensive strategy for dealing with North Korea. Technically speaking, the difference between the South Korean "grand bargain" and the US "road map" lies in the fact that the South's approach is a single step to dealing with North Korea, while the US "road map" is a gradual approach to denuclearisation. Washington's snubbing of the South Korean president's speech is exceptional enough to qualify it as a "diplomatic slight", said a former senior South Korean foreign ministry official who spoke to South Korea's newspaper, Hankyoreh, on condition of anonymity. Drew Thompson, who analyses East Asian security issues at the Nixon Center, a Washington-based policy think-tank, said the media had hyped what was essentially a normal diplomatic process between allies. "South Korea is not a colony of the US. It doesn't have to consult everything of what it does with the US," he said. Mr Thompson, who said he read Mr Lee's entire speech, believes that although the plan is technically different from Washington's, it is "essentially little different" in substance. Observers who agree on this view said Mr Lee's speech was more a rhetorical gesture, meant to serve the purpose of letting the United States know that South Korea has ideas of its own when it comes to dealing with its rogue neighbour. They also say the episode reflects a South Korean uneasiness with the "honeymoon situation" between the Obama administration and North Korea - a term used by the CIA director, Leon Panetta, this month, to describe the thawing in the countries' relationship since Pyongyang released two US journalists thanks to a flying visit from the former president, Bill Clinton, to meet with the North's leader, Kim Jong Il. "Their difference is inevitable," said Dong Young-seung, head of the North Korean security team at the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul, noting the philosophical difference between the conservative government of Mr Lee, who was elected on the pledge of getting tough on the North, and the Obama administration, which is still in engagement mode. Some say the incident also highlighted how different countries involved in the multilateral coalition of persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear drive are also in a delicate game of chess among themselves to assert their own leadership. For example, while the US is exploring opportunities for bilateral negotiation with North Korea, China is pressuring Pyongyang to return to the six-nation nuclear negotiations of which Beijing is the host and is therefore keen to maintain its platform, as a moderating force. Mr Dong predicted that the United States will eventually accommodate the South Korean proposal because "it's essentially the same concept of what Kurt Campbell said earlier." Mr Shi agreed: "Although the US is not pleased by South Korea, which is trying to assert a 'leadership' role in the negotiation ? America is likely to combine its own 'road map' deal with the South Korea's 'grand bargain' design." foreign.desk@thenational.ae