Are the U.S. and South Korea struggling to effectively coordinate policy on North Korea? Last week Kurt Campbell, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, applauded the current level of international cooperation on the North Korea issue, but recent interactions between the U.S. and South Korea paint a different picture.
Signs of a potential rift emerged a month ago in the immediate wake of President Lee’s grand bargain proposal, which apparently took U.S. officials by surprise. When asked about Lee’s proposal a day later, Campbell noted that he was not aware of the offer. U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said, “I think it’s really not for me to comment on the particulars, because it’s – this is his policy. These were his remarks.”
What ensued was a tempest of South Korean media speculation about discord between the U.S. and South Korea. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg assured reporters in Seoul that the two sides were on the same page. President Lee left a different impression: “So what if Mr. so-and-so says he is not aware of [the proposal],” he said.
Evidence of a communication gap was again evident earlier this week. In a Washington briefing with South Korean reporters, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Wallace Gregson indicated that Kim Jong-il had invited President Lee Myung-bak to Pyongyang for summit talks. Cheong Wa Dae promptly issued a denial of this claim and suggested a “misunderstanding.” Despite the denial, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo and Korea Times reported that Gregson’s statement has powered a vigorous rumor mill.
As the North’s deputy nuclear envoy, Ri Gun, prepares a visit to the U.S. that may lead to bilateral negotiations, the U.S. and South Korea need to coordinate their efforts more carefully, even if the Korean media has overblown the extent of a rift. Negotiation with North Korea will be challenging enough as it is; it need not be further complicated by lack of communication between two allies.