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.
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."
"As far as I know they just acknowledge the memorandum," he explains. "North Korea may say it 'understands' [the] memorandum," he goes on, "but 'understands' has a meaning that is different from 'I know' or "I confirm.' "
The reward for US acceptance of the North Korean position includes compliance with two longstanding North Korean demands: removal of North Korea from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism and lifting of economic sanctions imposed under the US "trading-with-the-enemy" act.
At the same time, North Korea would complete disabling its well-publicized facilities at Yongbyon – where it has produced warheads with plutonium at their core – and move on to permanently dismantling its entire nuclear program.
Pressure to accommodate
For all the apprehensions about the outcome of the Singapore meeting, however, the sense is that Lee may go along with it if only to advance South Korea's interests in other areas.
"There's no other way but to accommodate it," says Paik Hak Soon, director of North Korean studies at the Sejong Institute, which worked closely with the governments of Kim Dae Jung and Mr. Kim's successor, Roh Moo Hyun, on North-South reconciliation.
"The previous policy has been to facilitate the process of denuclearization," says Mr. Paik. "The rational way," he says, "is to keep both channels open." These include the six-party talks to persuade North Korea to live up to agreements on abandoning its nuclear program and inter-Korean dialogue building on the North-South summit of last October, in which North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il and South Korea's President Roh vowed to forge ahead on economic issues.
North Korea, however, has canceled all dialogue with the South. In recent days it has called Lee a "traitor," "imposter," and "sycophant" for demanding reciprocity on any deal with the North and verification of compliance with the nuclear agreement.
Lee "has failed to improve inter-Korean relations," Paik continues. "North Korea has its own interests to upgrade deteriorating relations. South Korea is losing some leverage."
North Korea's most pressing interest now may be the threat of a food crisis similar to that in the 1990s, in which up to 2 million people died. The World Food Program's Asia director, Tony Banbury, described North Korea as nearing a food crisis that is "bad and getting worse." The UN agency estimates that North Korea's food deficit this year will be twice that of last year. Foreign help is "urgently required to avert a serious tragedy," he said.
North Korea, however, has not made its annual request for food and fertilizer with South Korea. But it has spurned Lee's program, "Vision 3000," in which he has said he wants to help rebuild the North's economy so the average North Korean will earn the equivalent of $3,000 a year, many times the current level.
To accomplish this, "Lee doesn't have any other option than to accommodate," says Paik. For that reason, "what happened in Singapore is a breakthrough," he adds.