Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 43

Confusion has continued to swirl around the South Korean capital over the meaning and significance of this week’s Russian-South Korean summit. At issue is the joint communique Presidents Vladimir Putin and Kim Dae-jung issued on Tuesday (not Wednesday, as was reported in yesterday’s Monitor). The communique appeared to reflect South Korean backing for both Russia’s position on the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and, indirectly, for the Kremlin’s opposition to U.S. missile defense plans. A number of news sources in South Korea and the West suggested that the communique appeared to mark a sudden shift in Seoul’s position on these issues, one which might be seen as either implicit or explicit. It was also suggested that the unexpected shift could complicate South Korea’s relations with its long-time ally in Washington.

The efforts of South Korean government officials to dispel these notions began almost immediately after publication of the joint communique, and continued yesterday. The most interesting of these clarifications was one which said that the South Korean government had in fact moved beforehand to get the approval of the Bush administration for the text used in the joint communique. “The draft of the communique was sent via the Korean Embassy in Washington to the U.S. government, while talking with Russia in the lead-up to the February 28 summit between President Kim Dae-jung and President Vladimir Putin,” a senior South Korean government official was quoted as saying. In Washington, meanwhile, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on Wednesday that the United States did not regard the Russian-South Korean joint statement as a condemnation of U.S. missile defense plans (Korea Herald, JoongAng Ilbo, March 2).

But Washington’s apparent absolution did not necessarily get the South Korean government out of hot water. As one South Korean daily observed, the disclosure of prior consultations between Seoul and Washington could itself touch off a pair of new diplomatic controversies: one involving Russian anger over the fact that Washington secretly had a hand in the Russian-South Korean negotiations and the other involving South Korean nationalists who might be angered by the extent to which Washington apparently has a say over South Korean foreign policy actions (Korea Times, March 1).

The New York Times, meanwhile, quoted South Korean officials yesterday explaining some of the reasons why Seoul’s position on the missile defense issue seems to have become so confused. They pointed out that, on the one hand, it is virtually impossible for the South Korean government to support the Bush administration’s missile defense plans because a statement to this effect would be seen as an act of belligerence by the north and would likely torpedo Kim Dae-jung’s reconciliation initiative. At the same time, Kim may have taken from his talks with Putin the belief that Moscow may be able to exert some influence in Pyongyang.

The Times also reports that Putin and Kim have committed themselves to a four-month period during which they will work together intensively to finalize an agreement first broached by North Korean President Kim Jong-il during talks with Putin last July. Under that agreement (which appears to have gone nowhere since Putin announced it), North Korea would give up its missile program in return for outside assistance in launching North Korean satellites. Although many observers remain skeptical about the seriousness of this proposal, the increasingly embattled South Korean president is running short of time and may have decided that the gambit with Putin–perhaps reflected in this week’s joint communique–was worth the risk (New York Times, March 1). He’ll get an opportunity to test the policy next week when he travels to the United States for talks with President George W. Bush. Putin, meanwhile, is scheduled to hold a meeting of his own with Kim Jong-il in Russia this April.