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SKorea, US leaders to reconcile views on North

Written by: Staff

Seoul, Sep 10: When South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun meets US President George W Bush later this week in Washington, the two will try to resolve differences in managing North Korea, which has strained ties between the allies.

The two countries are facing challenges to three pillars of their relationship -- economic, security and political ties.

Analysts are wondering just how much common ground can be found at the summit on Thursday.

The Roh and Bush administrations have at times come into conflict on just how much pressure to put on North Korea, which defied international warnings by test-firing seven missiles in July and may be preparing for a nuclear weapons test.

''The South Korea-US alliance is in a crisis,'' said Kim Seung-hwan, senior associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Apart from North Korea, the two will discuss negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement and a plan for which Roh has come under severe criticism at home that calls for South Korea to take over wartime command of its troops from the United States.

US and South Korean officials have stressed they are on the same page. The US point man for North Korea will visit Seoul prior to the Roh-Bush summit to help smooth over differences.

''I do not think we have differing opinions on the importance of US-Korean relations,'' South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said earlier this month.

''The presidential Blue House, Foreign Ministry and Unification Ministry may have different opinions regarding the details but the government will find consensus among these opinions,'' Ban said at a media forum in Seoul.

Seoul has backed engagement and dialogue with its neighbour. Washington has grown increasingly frustrated with a recalcitrant North and has said it will not make concessions that will reward bad behaviour on Pyongyang's part. North Korea has refused for almost a year to return to six-party talks on ending its nuclear weapons programme, calling for an end to US crackdown on its finances as a condition for it to come back to the talks.

South Korea's Unification Ministry has openly criticised Washington for its approach to human rights in North Korea and for not doing enough to prevent the missile launch.

PRECARIOUS SUMMIT Roh, who won elections in 2002 on a surge in anti-US sentiment, has criticised hard-liners in the Bush administration who have backed measures to further isolate an already reclusive North Korea.

Roh's support base comes from people who would like to see Seoul become more independent from Washington.

Roh stirred the pot a few days ago by saying in Helsinki the North's decision in the July missile launch to shoot off one of its long-range Taepodong-2 missile, which one day could hit parts of US territory, may have been more for political purposes than military use.

''The North Korea that is still of interest to the US is the producer and the proliferator of weapons of mass destruction. So for Roh to have said that firing one of those weapons was simply a political move only highlighted the vast difference in perceptions between the two countries,'' said Kim Il-young, a professor at Sungkyunkwan University and expert on South Korea's alliance with the United States.

A key point for Roh will be easing concerns at home about the shift in the command structure born out of the 1950-1953 Korean War. The US now has about 30,000 troops in South Korea, which has about 670,000 troops.

Numerous former defence ministers, including one who served under Roh, have criticised the move to shift wartime command of the troops to South Korea.

They say it could lead Washington to decrease its military commitment to South Korea, which is technically still at war with the North.

''This is going to be a precarious summit,'' said Kim Il-young.


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