For Rice, Seoul proves a cautious ally

South Korean officials are skeptical of fully endorsing US policy, even as Rice pushes a firm approach to Pyongyang.

As she whirls through the capitals of northeast Asia this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is conveying messages tailored to the sensitivities of leaders united in their concern over North Korea's nuclear test but wavering in their responses.

Nowhere is Ms. Rice's message more carefully modulated than in South Korea.

There, the government yearns to rescue its policy of reconciliation with North Korea against US pressure for strong measures to combat what Rice says is "trafficking" in weapons of mass destruction.

The hard-line view of Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, contrasts with China's clearly defined wish to avoid an armed clash with North Korea. But Seoul's view of its alliance with the United States and its relationship with North Korea is more complex than that of any other regional stakeholder.

Anxious to restore historic ties with its northern neighbor, South Korea has pursued a policy of engagement with North Korea that increasingly conflicts with its alliance with the US – and leaves Koreans in sharp disagreement with each other.

"She did very well in Japan where she was assured the US-Japan alliance is in solid shape," says Shim Jae-hoon, a columnist and political commentator here. "But in Korea we have lost the legitimacy of the US alliance and just don't know where we belong."

It was to brace the frayed alliance, and persuade South Korea of the need for real firmness toward North Korea, that Rice spent twice the originally scheduled 30 minutes in a meeting with President Roh Moo Hyun before emerging with a finely tuned view of what the US was doing – and not doing.

She had not come to South Korea "to try to dictate" what the government should do, she said, seated beside Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon. The US, Rice wanted Koreans to understand, has "no desire" to see an escalation in tensions.

That said, Rice was firm about the need for "all of us" to "live up to the obligations we undertook that North Korea should not traffic in these materials" – that is, the military hardware covered in the UN resolution banning their movement in and out of the North and on financial dealings that might aid the weapons program.

Rice was careful not to demand that South Korea should join the Proliferation Security Initiative – a US-backed scheme in which some 70 nations have agreed to work together to try to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

She did, however, attempt what appeared to be an effort at diplomatic salesmanship, hoping to alleviate high-level Korean concerns that the interdiction of North Korean vessels might lead to armed conflict.

The Proliferation Security Initiative, she said, was "based on intelligence" – and not the constant inspection of ships.

"Scrutiny of North Korean cargoes," she noted, "can be achieved in many ways" – ranging from "port security" to "detection of radioactive materials."

Whether she sold South Koreans on this perspective, though, was far from clear. Kim Byungki, visiting scholar at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, predicts she'll only "partially succeed" in convincing skeptical South Koreans leaders to endorse US policy.

Our policies are 'under review'

Throughout the meetings, a favorite phrase of South Korean officials, including Foreign Minister Ban, was that policies, including what to do about the Proliferation Security Initiative, were under review.

Ban, in what is likely to be his last meeting with Rice before he steps down to become UN secretary-general, was equally circumspect when it came to US pressure to stop tours to the North Korean resort region of Mount Kumkang. That was also "under review," he said, parrying US criticism that payment for the tours goes directly into North Korean nuclear and missile programs in violation of the UN sanctions. (See related story.)

Next stop: Beijing

Rice may have an easier time when she gets to Beijing, whose emissaries were in North Korea's capital city of Pyongyang Thursday delivering what is assumed to be a firm message of warning against conducting a second nuclear test.

At the very least, US officials hope to learn what State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, who led the Chinese team to Pyongyang, said in a message described by a Chinese official as "very significant" and "in-depth discussions on China-North Korea relations as well as the prevailing situation on the Korean peninsula."

Rice is expected to use much the same diplomatic verbiage in Beijing as in Seoul, where she said everyone was taking stock "of the leverage" each country wields over North Korea and how "much we can do cooperatively."

In Beijing, unlike Seoul, Rice won't have to deal with the whole issue of widely differing views about either an alliance with the US or the future of the government – a question that hangs over all discussions here about North Korea.

"I have no idea where President Roh is trying to lead this country," says political commentator Mr. Shim. "This issue is spotlighted by Rice's visit. We need to make a decision – whether to support the sanctions or not. I just don't know where this government is leading us."

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