The foreign and defense ministers of Korea and the U.S. are among the busiest officials in both countries. Getting the four to sit face to face is "almost as difficult as arranging a presidential summit," according to one Foreign Ministry official. When the first "two plus two" meeting took place in Seoul in July 2010, the gathering drew intense media attention, because it had been arranged in the wake of North Korea's sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan.
This year's "two plus two" meeting takes place in Washington D.C. on Thursday. It symbolizes the strength of the Seoul-Washington alliance. On top of the agenda is North Korea, led by 29-year-old Kim Jong-un. But the incidents that really need to be addressed originate in the U.S.
The recent revelation of a secret visit to North Korea on April 7 by senior U.S. officials is a serious issue that could damage the credibility of the alliance. Joseph Di Trani, a nuclear negotiator in the George W. Bush administration, and Sydney Seiler, a National Security Council advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama, flew to Pyongyang aboard a U.S. Air Force plane in a secret mission six days before North Korea's failed rocket launch on April 13. They apparently tried in vain to stop North Korea from launching what it claimed was a space rocket. The problem is that the trip occurred without consultation with the South Korean government; Washington merely informed Seoul about the visit.
Only a few senior South Korean officials knew about the trip. That was a complete reversal of the Obama administration's pledge that it would not pursue any high-level dialogue with North Korea without consulting Seoul. When asked by a reporter about details of the trip, a senior government official expressed his frustration by saying, "There is nothing I can confirm, so ask the U.S. yourself."
The situation is the same with regard to growing calls from U.S. politicians to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. U.S. lawmakers, led by Republicans in the House of Representatives, demanded that the Obama administration deliver a report on the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons. They did not consider South Korea's position, which has caused considerable controversy here. The U.S. must realize that, no matter how good its intentions, the days are long gone when American politicians can pursue unilateral policies regarding nuclear weapons stationed in another country.
Officials here are saying publicly that the tactical nukes are intended to bolster defenses against North Korea, but some suspect that the move aims to keep China in check.
Japanese ambassador to the U.S. Ichiro Fujisaki said "three no's" are crucial in maintaining a strong alliance with Washington: no surprises, no overcomplication and no overpoliticization, and no taking each other for granted. According to that standard, Washington violated the first rule.
Hostile countries may fight openly, but allies traditionally resolve disputes in secret. During their meeting in Washington, the two South Korean ministers need to challenge Washington about the trip to North Korea even if this leads to raised voices. They just have to remember to talk about North Korea policy and smile in front of the cameras afterwards.
By Lee Ha-won from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk