Japan-S. Korea rift widens over missiles

Tensions complicate US efforts to develop a unified strategy to address North Korea's nuclear program.

As special US envoy Christopher Hill returns to the US from Asia Thursday with doubts that North Korea will join multiparty talks, an unusual and slightly troubling side show is developing between South Korea and Japan over how to deal with Kim Jong Il's missiles and nukes.

The two US allies and key participants in the talks have exchanged some of the sharpest rhetoric and barbs in memory, complicating US efforts to forge a consensus strategy to deal with North Korea.

In Seoul, critics and even sympathizers notice the government's tendency to excuse or deny negative news about Kim Jong Il and his isolated military regime. For example, in the 24 hours after Pyongyang tested missiles that can reach Japan and US bases, every East Asian state offered a clear thumbs down – except South Korea.

For eight days, President Roh Moo-hyun made no comment, an approach termed "strategic silence" by some aides in the executive Blue House – and in keeping with a policy here to downplay bad news about North Korea. While it is hard for a foreigner to fathom, experts here say, the design of the policy of silence is to keep Mr. Kim's regime stable until Seoul is ready to absorb it, perhaps in 20 to 30 years.

Mr. Roh broke his silence Monday in a verbal barrage that seemed more critical of various Japanese reactions to the North Korean tests, than of the tests themselves. The comments followed days of bitter back and forth between Toyko and Seoul, with Korea implying that Japan was "overreacting" to the tests in order to remilitarize in Asia, and saying Japan has moved further away from a position of sincere apology for its invasion of Korea, and further into denials of its past and hawkish thinking.

"I could hardly understand why the North went ahead with the missile tests," Roh said at a dinner for his Uri party. "But more worrisome is some Japanese leaders' remarks on a pre-emptive attack." Tokyo politicians have floated the idea of "pre-emptive strikes" against North Korean missiles. Shinzo Abe, cabinet secretary and presumptive next prime minister of Japan, has suggested Japan must explore ways to counterattack if North Korea launches missiles at Japan.

Roh chided the Japanese for taking an "aggressive attitude," and his office issued a press release July 11 saying Japan's "threatening statements are to endanger peace in Northeast Asia. They reveal the militant nature of Japan...."

But far from being deterred by such charges from the South Koreans, Japanese Defense Agency Director Fukushiro Nukaga wants to go further.

An editorial in the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun Monday said: "The government has to take the threat of North Korea's ballistic missiles seriously," and supported a proposal from Mr. Nukaga to acquire "the capability to attack enemy missile bases."

The nationalistic words and images were designed to enhance popular domestic standing and play into sensitive historical and psychological fault lines in Asia.

In the past year, Koreans have been angered by Japan's challenge to Korea's claim to Dokdo Islands. The issue strikes deeply patriotic chords in Korea, since Dokdo was Japan's staging area for the invasion of Korea in the 1930s.

Yet if Japan has overreacted to the missile tests, South Korea has lived up to its moniker as the "land of morning calm." In the aftermath of the tests, media and government here seemed positively placid, taking a mostly business-as-usual attitude.

Almost no effort has been made to explain why for more than a month South Korean officials tried to downplay the Taepodong-2 as it sat on the launch pad, by calling it a nonmilitary "satellite," says a US military source in South Korea.

In a Monitor interview, Roh's national security adviser, Song Min-soon, strongly insisted that Roh did condemn the tests, though it was throughgovernment statements and his spokesman.

"We said North Korea did a provocative and unwise act, and implied that they would pay the price." Moreover, Roh has kept a careful balance between statements on Japan and North Korea, Mr. Song said, "My president is keeping an equal profile on the two events ... any use of force by Japan would be a disaster. If someone threatened a missile strike on Virginia, how would you feel if you lived in Maryland?"

Song stated further that South Korea told the North at talks in Busan Wednesday that "we won't offer more economic assistance until the North returns to the six party talks, and we can't give more aid until we get an acceptable explanation for this provocative act." However, a Korea Times editorial titled "Dumbfounded," one in a chorus of criticisms, took the Blue House to task for deliberately obfuscating the severity of the missile tests and excusing them despite the threat they pose.

South Korea's policy of silence about North Korea is not something new to the Roh regime, however, say diplomats, US military sources, and Korean journalists.

The government has discouraged news critical of the North dating to previous president Kim Dae Jung and his successful effort to change the approach of the South to the North into one of gradual engagement, affirmation, and unification – though some call it appeasement. Critics say it keeps the South's population in the dark about the crimes and abuses of the North, and also sows distrust in the US military about where South Korea's heart lies.

"You can't say anything bad about North Korea without being labeled a right-winger who advocates a return to military dictatorship," says Brian Myers, an expert on North Korea. "It is about that subtle."

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