In Asia, Powell takes stock of a jittery region

The secretary of state arrives Monday in Seoul to discuss North Korea's nuclear escalation.

Amid a jarring nuclear crisis in North Korea, Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in Seoul Monday on the trickiest leg of a sensitive mission to Asia.

America's top diplomat will attend the inauguration of new South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun tomorrow. But he also must work to heal a rift in US-South Korean amity at a time of real differences over North Korea. Next month, as part of a mutual reevaluation, talks begin on redeploying or reducing the 37,000 US troops here, and shifting the main US base, a longtime friction point, centered in Seoul.

There is palpable concern in Asia that an Iraq-focused US will give short shrift to the North Korean problem. The visit allows Mr. Powell to pick up the sensibility of the region and its leaders at a time of major political and generational change in South Korea and China, something viewed here as highly valuable.

In Tokyo Sunday, Powell started addressing concerns by saying the US would not withhold food aid from North Korea, whose people depend on outside donations to avoid starvation. Powell's statement that the US doesn't use food as a "political weapon" was an effort to ease perceptions of an uncompromising US.

Powell's mission itself is more important, say analysts, than any headlines he may make. Diplomats and analysts here hope he will signal that the US is aware of the risks with the North, and that the White House is doing the hard back-room work of building a strategic answer to the crisis.

"This is an opportunity for Powell to focus on issues that, if he weren't here in Asia, and with Iraq, might not have gotten attention," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation. "People here feel the risks of escalation on the North Korean side."

In just the past week, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il has offered several new provocations. Smoke is rising from the Yongbyon nuclear plant where plutonium fuel rods are stored. The North threatened to withdraw from the 1953 armistice agreement with the South. A jet from the North flew into South Korean airspace.

The US has not yet labeled this a "crisis." But the North Korea question is changing the region's character. Along with Japanese President Junichiro Koizumi, Powell met with Defense chief Shigeru Ishiba, who earlier this month said Japan reserved the right to strike North Korea if it detects missiles preparing to launch toward its territory. On March 28, Japan will hoist two spy satellites.

Powell was scheduled to meet China's young new leader, Hu Jintao, Monday. The US has been quietly hounding China to do more, but so far China is not choosing sides against the North. US officials in Beijing Sunday said they have no plans to ask for anything new while in town.

Only last August, North Korea's Kim Jong Il was talking about special economic zones, and rapprochement with Japan. But in October, as Bush officials were on a first visit to Pyongyang, the North admitted to a secret nuclear program that appears to date to the Clinton administration. The North then withdrew from a 1994 treaty that shut down a reactor, kicked out UN inspectors, and quit the nonproliferation treaty. The North has demanded direct talks with the White House and a guarantee the US will not attack.

The US says it will not be blackmailed, and that the issue should be solved in concert with other leading and regional states. But China, South Korea, and Russia still want US-Pyongyang talks.

The most sensitive visit of Powell's tour is here in South Korea. A new strain of anti-Americanism mixed with national pride has been rising among younger generations, something Powell acknowledged while in Japan. And while Roh's team has sent mixed messages to Washington, it is clear it wants relations on a more-equal footing.Top US diplomat Richard Armitage agrees this is desirable for the world's 10th-largest economy.

It is doubtful Powell will use this trip to push for a tougher stand on the North. "He is going to be a good ally, and let that speak for itself," says a source close to the US. At the same time, the somewhat inexperienced Roh team will have a chance to meet the Americans as they are in the midst of high-level international diplomacy.

Roh has floated the idea of a "peace treaty" to replace the armistice. This is ambitious but consistent with his predecessor's Sunshine Policy of engagement. But how that can be reconciled with the North's escalation remains unanswered.

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