AFTER his summit with Asian leaders in Seattle, President Clinton will welcome South Korean President Kim Young Sam to the White House tomorrow in a display of support for him during a diplomatic showdown with North Korea.
Doubts have risen in South Korea over whether the American people, Congress, and Mr. Clinton would wage a war against a possibly nuclear-equipped North Korea, especially after Clinton's hesitancy against military engagement in Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Many analysts worry that the North's worsening economy could lead it to launch an attack on the South.
Some Seoul legislators have also expressed worry that secret United States-North Korean talks that began earlier this year could lead to a big reduction in the 36,000 American troops now stationed in the South.
Such worries were compounded by a Pentagon proposal last spring to reduce US ability to fight two wars at once. The proposal was scrapped, partly because of a protest by Seoul. And next year, the US will hand over operational control of the Korea-US Combined Forces to Korea.
``Despite the ending of the cold war confrontation in most parts of the world, the tension in and around the Korean Peninsula bred by North Korean intransigence still persists unabated,'' a Korean Herald editorial states. ``This grim fact of life hardly permits a let-down in our common [US-Korean] cause of preserving peace in the region.''
The US is working to reassure Seoul of its commitment by keeping up pressure on the North to end its alleged nuclear weapons program. Clinton, for instance, said in a recent interview that an attack on the South by the North would be considered ``an attack on the United States.''
And top Clinton defense officials visited Seoul this month to discuss security issues, while a new US ambassador, James Laney, took up his post with a warm welcome. Mr. Laney once taught at a Korean university, served with the US Army in Korea, and knows President Kim personally.
Kim, a former dissident, is seen by many US officials as a model Asian leader. Like Clinton, he is relatively young and, since taking office earlier this year, has made sweeping reforms, especially in fighting corruption and reducing military influence. He was elected as the country's first civilian leader in three decades.
His trip to Washington will reciprocate a visit to Seoul by Clinton last July, when the two men shared a morning jog near the ``Blue House,'' the president's official residence. Kim is making his first overseas trip since becoming president last February and, in Seattle, he became the first South Korean leader to attend a multilateral summit.
SOUTH Korea enjoys strong diplomatic leverage over the North since it gained recognition from Beijing and Moscow at the end of the cold war. But even with US and Japanese support, Kim has had little leverage in persuading the Communist North to allow international inspections of its nuclear program.
For now, the US, Japan, and South Korea have decided to put off seeking United Nations-backed economic sanctions of the North, partly because China would likely veto such a move.
In a special plea from Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa in Seattle, however, Chinese President Jiang Zemin was asked to use Beijing's considerable economic and diplomatic influence over North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. Mr. Jiang responded that China ``would exert a positive influence on North Korea,'' Tokyo officials say.
In early November, North Korea proposed a ``package deal'' under which the US would renounce its ``nuclear threat and hostile policy'' toward Pyongyang, and in return Pyongyang would accept inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and ``fully comply'' with the IAEA safeguards agreement. Such a deal would likely undercut the South's defenses, however, and be unacceptable to Washington.
In Pyongyang, Kang Sok Ju, first vice-minister of foreign affairs and head of the talks with the US, said in an official report on Nov. 13 that ``the ball is in the court of the United States and the IAEA.''
The US, meanwhile, which has temporarily ruled out an air strike against Pyongyang's nuclear facilities, is working on a ``package'' solution that offers ``new incentives'' for the North to make itself open to inspections by the IAEA. North Korea blocked the inspections earlier this year when the IAEA raised suspicions that the North had made bomb-grade plutonium.
And Clinton expects further cooperation on the issue. ``I would remind you that South Korea, Japan, and China are intimately interested and personally affected by those developments,'' he said.
``We have consulted extensively with all three of them all along the way, and we are pursuing the policy we think has the best chance of success.''