Why Are Seoul and Washington Out of Sync?

      September 24, 2009 12:59

      The unthinkable happened between South Korean and U.S. diplomats after President Lee Myung-bak proposed offering North Korea a "grand bargain" of security guarantees and economic aid in exchange for scrapping its nuclear weapons program. Lee made the suggestion during a speech on Monday at the Korea Society in New York.

      When asked by reporters about Lee's proposal, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Kurt Campbell said, "Actually, I -- to be perfectly honest, I was not aware of that." Campbell added, "Nothing of the sort came up in our session with the South Korean counterparts" before Lee's speech. U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said, "I think it's really not for me to comment on the particulars, because it's -- this is his policy. These were his remarks." The New York Times reported that the U.S. government feels Lee's proposal had "surprised" American officials and that Washington felt it was "far-fetched."

      But it was the U.S. government itself that first proposed a "comprehensive package" of political and military guarantees and economic assistance. Feeling that it is impossible to resolve the nuclear impasse by offering piecemeal rewards to the North at each stage of denuclearization, the U.S. had brought up a comprehensive approach envisioning various forms of support to North Korea if it scraps its nuclear weapons program. The "grand bargain" proposed by Lee is essentially the same.

      That was precisely the plan Campbell, who said he never heard of it, had brought with him during his visit to South Korea in July. "There was a consensus on the fact that the North Korean nuclear negotiations should be approached comprehensively, rather than in different stages," a South Korean official said. "But it is possible that U.S. officials had heard the term 'grand bargain' for the first time."

      If that is the case, it means that the U.S. government ended up publicly refuting a speech by the South Korean president simply because of a difference in wording. This is rare in diplomacy. Some are saying that the U.S. government may have been displeased because it got the impression that sanctions against the communist country may have been overshadowed by Lee's proposal, especially at a time when Washington is pursuing a dual-track approach, simultaneously involving dialogue and sanctions. But the U.S. knows that the consistent stance of the South Korean government is to continue sanctions against the communist country.

      "In fact, the point that we tried to make was how careful that we need to be at this juncture to be consolidated in our approach," Campbell said. Yet when it comes to Lee's proposal, the exact opposite has happened between South Korea and the U.S. The future of talks with North Korea remains doubtful now that this has happened, especially at a time when fresh nuclear dismantlement talks have yet to begin.

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