SEOUL, South Korea – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday nudged South Korea toward a firmer response to last week’s nuclear weapons test by North Korea, a neighbor that leaves the South deeply conflicted.

Rice received little in the way of public commitments from South Korean leaders other than a promise to comply with U.N. sanctions against the North and an assurance that the government would review how it operates two high-profile joint economic ventures in North Korea.

North Korea’s nuclear detonation stirred a passionate debate within a country that has long been polarized on how it should deal with Pyongyang.

While the nuclear test has energized domestic criticism of the South Korean government’s policy of engagement with North Korea, others have challenged the Bush administration’s harsh rhetoric toward Pyongyang as a contributing cause of the crisis. The recent developments have stirred anxiety that South Korea would suffer deeply in any conflict or the chaos that would follow a collapse of the North Korean regime.

Even before Rice’s plane landed in Seoul, a senior State Department official traveling with her warned not to expect any immediate announcements, lest the South Korean government appear to be buckling to American pressure.

In Beijing, where Rice travels Friday as she continues a tour of the region, a high-ranking Chinese official returned from a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. U.S. officials “strongly suspected” that Chinese State Counselor Tang Jiaxuan had delivered a stern warning against a second nuclear test, the senior State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Rice is scheduled to meet with Tang during her Beijing visit.

China, which shares an 880-mile frontier with North Korea and is an important source of food and energy, maintains the most influence with the Kim regime and consequently is crucial to the Bush administration’s strategy of isolating North Korea.

With South Korea the second-largest trading partner to the Kim regime, Seoul’s response to the nuclear test also is significant.

Lee Jung Hoon, dean and professor of international affairs at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said the South Korean government has not shown clear signs of how it will proceed. The ruling party has vigorously promoted a “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North.

“I think this government is still unsure how to respond, given the position that it has taken in dealing with North Korea for years,” Lee said.

A day before Rice arrived, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun’s chief national security adviser warned of the potential damage to South Korea from conflict on the peninsula and suggested Washington had a warlike history, saying the U.S. “has fought more wars than any other nation in the history of its establishment and survival,” according to South Korean media accounts.

Asked about the remarks during a joint news conference with Rice, Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon said the remarks had been “misinterpreted” in the local press.

Two showcase projects that South Korea operates in North Korea have stirred particular interest as possible points of leverage: the Kaesong economic zone, in which North Korean workers are employed by South Korean businesses, and the Kumgangsan tourist enclave, a storied place in Korean folklore from which the Kim regime earns cash from South Korean visitors.

The State Department official traveling with Rice conceded that the projects probably do not contravene U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea in the wake of its Oct. 9 nuclear test. The sanctions ban import of luxury goods and materials for missiles or weapons of mass destruction and also targets funds used for unconventional weapons programs.

Still, the official argued, curtailment or elimination of the projects would squeeze the Kim regime’s resources.

“I don’t think anyone is suggesting it goes directly into some (weapons of mass destruction) account. But it is a source of hard money,” the official said.

When Rice was asked about the projects after meetings with South Korean leaders, she avoided directly criticizing the programs.

“I did not come to South Korea nor … will I go anyplace else to try to dictate to governments what they ought to do,” Rice said. But, she added, “What I do think is very important is that everyone takes stock of the leverage we have.”

Ban, the foreign minister, cited the “positive aspects” of the development projects in his public remarks. But he said the government would “review adjusting the projects to be consistent with” the U.N. sanctions.

In private discussions, South Korean officials told their U.S. counterparts they planned to eliminate a government subsidy estimated at $3 million to $5 million annually for the tourist enclave, a State Department official said.

South Korean officials also said they were considering a change in the payment system for North Korean workers at the industrial zone. Currently, South Korean companies pay the workers’ wages directly to the North Korean government; an alternative under consideration calls for employers to pay the wages instead to their North Korean employees.

(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


GRAPHIC (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20061019 NKOREA map

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AP-NY-10-19-06 1909EDT

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