Clouds on The Horizon

Talk about open secrets. For weeks now, North Korean technicians have been preparing a site for the launch of a ballistic missile. In Washington, national-security adviser Stephen Hadley warned Pyongyang that launching a missile would expose North Korea to the unspecified wrath of the United States; in Tokyo, a senior Japanese politician echoed the vague threat.

And what about South Korea? Most people there have completely ignored the launch, opting instead to cheer their team through the World Cup. Oh, yes, and then there was the celebration in Kwangju, where delegates from the two Koreas gathered to celebrate the sixth anniversary of a historic summit between their leaders that marked the beginning of the "Sunshine Policy" --the South's program of proactive support for its economically prostrate communist sibling. Meanwhile, the South's radical university-student association, in a directive to student councils, called for "escalation of the wave of anti-American struggles."

Seoul and Washington used to share a common viewpoint on how to approach Pyongyang: warily. But now that's more the way the two military allies perceive each other, with Washington hewing to a fairly tough line on North Korea and Seoul preferring a policy of accommodation. Indeed, it's increasingly clear that Seoul's Sunshine Policy is not just a fleeting improvisation, as it seemed when launched by President Kim Dae Jung in 1998. Rather, it's the expression of a whole set of deeper imperatives that are steadily driving a wedge between the United States and South Korea. "The Sunshine Policy changed the South, not the North," says Kim Jung Won at Seoul's Sejong University. "The southerners are confused. They're no longer sure who's their enemy and who's their friend."

Maybe that will become clearer later this month, when the architect of the Sunshine Policy, former president Kim Dae Jung, heads to Pyongyang for a much-heralded tête-à-tête with dictator Kim Jong Il. Optimists hope that the meeting will jump-start the moribund Six-Party Talks, the multilateral negotiating process aimed at persuading the North to discard its presumed nuclear arsenal. But the major players in the talks are being pulled apart by their increasingly divergent interests--and without a breakthrough the increasingly threadbare international consensus on the need to disarm North Korea could unravel altogether.

Along the way, Seoul's military alliance with Washington may be fraying. In March, the two countries started talks designed to prepare the way for Seoul to take over control of joint U.S.-South Korean military forces in the country. The commander of U.S. forces in Korea, Gen. Burwell Bell, has been hinting that Washington won't stand in the way, and South Korean President Roh Myoo Hun has indirectly confirmed the shift by saying that Seoul will assume wartime command within the next five years. Publicly, both American and South Korean officials are saying that the change merely represents a long-overdue "modernization" of the alliance. But experts say that, in reality, transferring command to Seoul will mean the virtual dissolution of the U.S.-South Korean Combined Forces.

On one level, the Sunshine Policy has worked. Hardly a week goes by without some sort of Korean-Korean meeting involving bureaucrats, generals or long-separated relatives touchingly reunited. Yet the policy also has its shadow side. For while the Bush administration is frustrated with the usual stonewalling and feinting from Pyongyang, South Korea seems ever ready to give Kim Jong Il the benefit of the doubt.

He's done little to earn such trust--much less the billions' worth of aid bestowed on his country by Seoul. In recent years there have been a cautious transformation in the North--chiefly a tentative program of economic reform--but the Sunshine Policy has done little to effect genuine change. Earlier this month Pyongyang announced, with the flimsiest of explanations, that it was postponing the long-planned opening of a rail link between North and South.

This spring media reports suggested that U.S. officials would be willing to offer Kim Jong Il's government a formal peace treaty as an incentive to get rid of its nuclear weapons. The North has issued two invitations for the U.S. negotiator at the Six-Party Talks to come to Pyongyang for discussions. But the Bush administration rebuffed the idea, and one senior administration official, who requested anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, stresses that Washington won't talk about a peace treaty until the North returns to the Six-Party talks. "The joint statement [in September] listed what [the North Koreans] need to do and what they would get. Everyone agrees that the statement is straightforward, and it's disturbing that they haven't followed it," says the official.

Meanwhile, some South Koreans have broached the idea that Seoul could sign its own truce with the North--something the South refused to do at the end of the Korean War in 1953. A similar proposal might well be in ex-president Kim's baggage as he journeys to Pyongyang--though officials in Washington don't seem to know and are clearly not thrilled about the idea. "This is something KDJ wants to do, but it's not a channel we see as leading to a breakthrough in the talks," says the Bush administration official.

The way the Sunshine Policy has been applied of late, it's hard to imagine why the North Koreans would want to alter the status quo. On May 9, President Roh promised that his government would henceforth supply the North with aid "without conditions"--surprising observers who had always assumed that the point of the talks was to offer international economic aid to Pyongyang only if it eliminated its nuclear weapons. South Korean officials insisted later that Roh's remark was taken out of context.

Perhaps, but misunderstandings between the two capitals seem to be occurring regularly. Washington was similarly spooked last year when Roh started talking about South Korea's desire to play the role of an impartial "balancer" between the region's powers--not what Washington wants to hear from a potential wartime ally. More recently the two countries have sparred over the notion of "strategic flexibility"--the idea that U.S. forces in South Korea could be deployed in any outside conflicts Washington deems necessary. "The South Koreans are anxious about making a decision that could get them entangled in some future U.S.-Chinese tensions over Taiwan," says Edward Olsen, a Korea expert at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. "It's a source of unease in Seoul. They're hedging their bets."

Not all of this can be blamed on naiveté in Seoul. South Korea's growing economic dependence on China is an important dynamic. China is now South Korea's biggest export market. "The economic trends are driving the deepening dependence of the Koreans on China and encouraging a certain sense of China as a potential protector," says Kent Calder, a former State Department official who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University. "The more that sense deepens, the less their economic and political dependence on the United States." That's got to give pause to policymakers in Washington who, when it comes to relations with Seoul and Pyongyang these days, seem to be on the outside looking in.