This piece first appeared in the Munhwa Ilbo.
North Korea will dominate the June 10 summit in Washington between South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun and President Bush. Even so, it is unlikely that any new strategies for resolving the acute nuclear crisis will emerge and both leaders will predictably point to the importance of the 6 party talks and the need to end North Korea's nuclear program diplomatically. This may satisfy President Roh's and President Bush's political needs, but the reality is that the six party talks are dead and the United States and South Korea are headed for a confrontation over what to do next.
In an effort to avoid a repeat of the unfortunate 2001 summit between President Bush and President Kim Dae Jung, the public statements and events with both men will be carefully orchestrated. Moreover, President Bush will express his genuinely gratitude for the contribution of South Korean troops to Iraq, a commitment that will help improve the overall atmosphere for the summit. But when the two men and their officials meet privately, the reality of the growing problems in the US-ROK alliance over North Korea will remain and neither side appears able or willing to take the steps needed to repair the current strains.
June 26th will mark one year since the six party talks were last held, and many expect that that anniversary will lead to a change in U.S. strategy; a change that could include an effort to bring the matter before the U.N. Security Council for sanctions or other measures including a quarantine on North Korea. President Bush and his advisors will try to convince President Roh to support such moves, support that appears unlikely to come from the South Korean government. In turn, the proposed shift will also be opposed by China who has a veto on the UN Security Council. Thus, it is unclear if the US will be able to move forward with such an effort without greatly irritating Seoul and its increasingly delicate relationship with Beijing. To say that North Korea will respond negatively and strongly to such a move is an understatement, but it is unclear if their reaction will include anything more than strong words. But the fact that even the United States and South Korea will be unable to agree on a tougher policy will add yet one more irritant to an already difficult alliance, with unpredictable consequences over the long term.
The truth is, the United States has no strategy for ending North Korea's nuclear program. The Bush administration is unwilling to take the steps necessary to entice North Korea to abandon their nuclear program through diplomacy and lacks the capability to end that program through coercion or military means. North Korea continues to capitalize on this state of affairs, increasing its nuclear stocks and watching while U.S. relationships with South Korea and China deteriorate. For its part, South Korea appears less interested in ending North Korea's nuclear program than in preventing any instability. While understandable, the current strategy of engagement assumes that North Korea will continue to exercise restraint and not seek to leverage its nuclear capabilities in the months and years to come. This is a dangerous assumption, aside from the friction this causes in the relationship with the US for whom the nuclear threat is severe and growing.
So it is likely that the summit will come and go without any real affect on the relationship or on the effort to end North Korea's nuclear program. Both Presidents will point to the image of the meeting as a sign that the relationship between the two states is strong, and overlook the reality that the alliance is weaker than at anytime in 20 years and heading in the wrong direction. Missing the opportunity to begin repairing the alliance in the face of the growing instability caused by North Korea's nuclear efforts is another danger the two states cannot afford to take.