President Barack Obama appears to have convinced many South Korean skeptics of the United States' commitment to the defense of South Korea during his White House meeting Tuesday with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak.
South Korea's defense ministry was quick to respond with obvious relief, characterizing the promise of a continued "nuclear umbrella" in the statement issued by the two presidents as "a warning to North Korea."
North Korea followed up almost at once, vowing in an editorial of "a 100- or 1,000-fold retaliation with merciless military strike" if the US "and its followers infringe upon our republic's sovereignty."
On that note, the summit – and the response – opens a new phase of a confrontation that seems to worsen by the day, at least in terms of rhetoric.
Yet in South Korea, the decisive tone of the summit was well received, signaling a shift away from a more combative tone that left some in the country doubtful about the need for close ties with the US.
"In the past, lack of policy coordination gave North Korea a kind of leverage," he says. The agreement on a "joint vision," he goes on, sends "a strong message to North Korea" that it cannot drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea.
A de facto nuclear state?
For South Koreans, a key question is whether tough words will translate into action – or incidents reminiscent of bloody clashes in the Yellow Sea in June 1999 and June 2002.
Yet another question is whether North Korea now ranks as a de facto nuclear state regardless of US reluctance to give it such recognition.
The affirmation of US nuclear support for South Korea in the event of a showdown with the North "has the risk of being portrayed as an indirect acknowledgement that North Korea has nuclear arms," says Kim Seung-joo, political scientist at Seoul's Sungkyungkwan University. "The more the allies step up their defense language," says Mr. Kim, as quoted by South Korea's Yonhap news agency, "the easier it is for North Korea to support its claim as a nuclear weapons state."
Regardless, South Korean officials have been pressing hard for this assurance in writing in view of the North Korean nuclear test of May 25 and signs that North Korea may conduct yet another nuclear test as well as test-fire more missiles potentially capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction.
The two presidents "went further than I've ever seen," says Scott Snyder, a long-time Korea-watcher at the Asia Foundation. The use of the phrase "nuclear umbrella" in the statement, he says, was particularly "useful" to President Lee amid concerns about just what North Korea means when it says that South Korean cooperation with the US constitutes "an act of war."
L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation in Washington, says the two leaders' meeting exhibited "much more of a dynamic," than in the past. "You have two well-matched pragmatic leaders."
There was little concrete mentioned on a contentious free-trade agreement. Nor was there any mention of the cases of two women, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, arrested by North Korean soldiers on March 17 as they were filming on the Tumen River border between North Korea and China and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
New assertions about US journalists
Hours before the summit, Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency stated that the two journalists, whose whereabouts are unknown since they were sentenced last week, had crossed into North Korea, shooting film in a campaign to "smear" North Korea by reporting on human rights issues.
KCNA made the link between their cases and broader issues, charging that "the American crimes were committed at a time when an unprecedented confrontational phase is building up on the Korean peninsula against the United States."
So saying, the North appears to be building up the two women as more than pawns. They are now becoming symbols of much larger US aggressive aims, value-added in the process of recriminations and eventual negotiations.
Kim Sang-hun, a longtime activist in South Korea on behalf of North Korean defectors, doubts the KCNA report, calling it "an indication of their embarrassment."
The North Koreans, he says, feel compelled to fend off the adverse publicity over the case with their own made-up cover story.
He believes "the women were trapped," perhaps by their Korean-Chinese guide, who escaped along with their cameraman-producer, Mitch Koss.