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'Secret' U.S.-N. Korea deal irks South

South Korea's conservative president will meet with Bush Friday, as the US appears to soften its stance on North Korea.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2008

Talks: President Lee has vowed to take a hard line on North Korea.

Ahn Young-Joon/AP



South Korea's recently inaugurated president, Lee Myung Bak, faces his first major foreign-policy challenge this week, as he prepares to confront President Bush Friday on a controversial secret deal reportedly drafted between American and North Korean negotiators.

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Senior South Korean officials say they still don't know the contents of the agreement, which is meant to jump-start North Korean compliance with agreements to abandon its nuclear weapons program. But they bristle at suggestions that North Korea is attempting to bypass their government while negotiating with the United States.

"I do not know what they have agreed," says Prime Minister Han Seung Soo, the top official here while Mr. Lee meets with Mr. Bush at Camp David on Friday and Saturday. "But if North Korea is going to the United States over the shoulder of [South] Korea, it will not succeed."

Analysts say the US is backing away from the key condition of the six-party agreement signed in February 2007, which called for North Korea to reveal the contents of its entire nuclear program. The North has repeatedly denied developing warheads with enriched uranium or aiding Syria on the facility that was bombed by Israeli warplanes last September.

Tough love or compromise?

Now, say analysts, Lee has to decide quickly whether to stick to his repeated pledges to adopt a "pragmatic" and tough policy toward North Korea – and break, as he has promised, from the Sunshine policy initiated by Kim Dae Jung after he became president a decade ago.

"It could be a dilemma for Lee Myung Bak," says Shim Jae Hoon, a longtime analyst of North Korean affairs. Lee "needs to draw a line from the previous government. He got elected on a platform of changing the government policy, and everything hinges on the nuclear issue."

At stake is a memorandum believed to have been drafted by US nuclear envoy Christopher Hill and North Korean envoy Kim Kye Gwan in a recent meeting in Singapore. In the face of North Korea's refusal to acknowledge anything to do with enriched uranium or the Syrian facility, Mr. Hill is believed to have suggested the two agree on a statement listing those accusations. North Korea would acknowledge that it "understands" what's written down – without directly affirming the truth of the document.

"That's too big a concession," says Choi Jin Wook, senior researcher on North Korea at the government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification, especially since Mr. Kim said after the meeting that he was happy with the results.

"North Korea cannot help but smile at this agreement," adds Mr. Choi, "but problems apparently focus on a matter of definition."