Why the U.S. and South Korea Don't See Eye to Eye

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U.S. President George W. Bush listens as South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun makes a statement to reporters after their meeting on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2006.

Five years ago, the Presidents and prime ministers of the 21 countries that make up the forum for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) gathered for the first time in the shadow of the war on terror. The host city back then was Shanghai, and the Chinese had hoped the APEC summit would be a historic coming out party for the gleaming symbol of their reignited capitalist fervor. Given the timing — two months after September 11, 2001— it didn't quite work out like that.

President Bush just left the latest APEC meeting, this one held in another one-party Communist country — Vietnam — hoping to impress the world with its own recent embrace of capitalism. And once again, five years on, it was the war on terror, and its consequences, that sucked the oxygen out of the conference rooms. In fact, what people may remember most about this APEC meeting is that it became painfully obvious just how successful Kim Jong Il — charter member of the "axis of evil" — has been at driving a wedge between the United States and its ostensible ally in Seoul.

For his entire second term, as Iraq has gone from bad to worse, the President has desperately sought to cajole the other great powers to join him to help deter North Korea and Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran is still a slow-motion work-in-progress, but the effort to deter Pyongyang from getting nukes failed. It's now about persuading Kim Jong Il to stand down his nukes in return for all sorts of unspecified economic and diplomatic goodies. But as the APEC meeting showed, on this matter South Korea and China have practically switched their standard roles of U.S. ally and irritant in the region.

The good news out of Hanoi, after all, is that China, North Korea's primary benefactor, still seems more determined than it had been before Pyongyang's July 4 missile test last summer to rein in Kim's nuclear program. An Administration official said the U.S., China and Japan "see eye to eye" on their carrot and stick approach to the North. Given that China and Japan pretty much don't agree on anything — save the benefits of running mind-bending trade surpluses with the United States — that's progress.

The bad news, however, is that South Korea — ostensibly (and unlike China) a close U.S. ally — was notably absent from the "eye to eye" crowd. South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, like Bush, a lame duck whose party has taken a drubbing in midterm elections, is determined to pursue his country's "Sunshine Policy" toward the North — all carrots and virtually no stick — no matter what. At multilateral meetings like APEC, he's effectively become a more effective stand-in for Kim Jong Il and his agenda than Chinese premier Hu Jintao.

Pressed by Bush to take a more proactive stance in the so called Proliferation Security Initiative against the North — which seeks to prevent WMD proliferation by interdicting ships if necessary — Roh demurred. The South Korean government issued an extraordinarily mealy-mouthed statement, saying that it "supported" the "goals" of PSI — but wouldn't actually do anything when it comes to interdicting North Korean ships. At least the Roh government is pretty straightforward about the reason: It says it's afraid of provoking the North into a war.

For the same reason, South Korea had avoided, until earlier this month, voting on U.N. condemnations of North Korea's human rights record, which next to Sudan is about the worst on the planet. One bitter human rights campaigner told TIME last month that for all South Korea cares, "Kim Jong Il could personally drop North Korean citizens from a helicopter into boiling vats of acid — just as long as he didn't by mistake drop one over the 38th parallel [into South Korea."] Now that South Korean Ban Ki Moon is Kofi Annan's designated successor as U.N. Secretary General, the Seoul government couldn't quite bring itself to abstain from a resolution criticizing Pyongyang earlier this month. But make no mistake; South Korea's See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil stance toward the North is still in place, and it couldn't be more out of sync with Bush's.

Roh and Bush had a sideline summit in Hanoi, which both sides tried, as usual, to put the best face on. But there's genuine reason for skepticism as to just how united a front the U.S. and its partners will present when the North finally shows up (as it has said it will) for the next round of "six-party talks" about its nukes.