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Hawkish U.S. Envoy in Seoul a Liability
[Opinion] Amb. Alexander Vershbow's comments on North Korea are heightening regional tensions
Cheong Wook Sik (news)     Print Article 
Published 2006-01-04 14:19 (KST)   
Screenshot of the opinion piece that U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow contributed to the South Korean progressive newspaper Hankyoreh Shinmun, last week.
©2006 OhmyNews
With controversy arising over U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea Alexander Vershbow's words and deeds, his opinion was printed in the Dec. 26 issue of the Hankyoreh Shinmun. In the op-ed, the ambassador said the U.S. had serious concerns about North Korea's involvement in counterfeiting and money laundering and thus, it would take necessary measures to protect itself. He emphasized, however, that this does not in any way reduce Washington's determination to resolve the nuclear issue through the Six-Party Talks.

It is rare that a U.S. top envoy to Seoul would contribute to a progressive media outlet. From a broad perspective, this is in line with "Public Diplomacy," which the Bush administration has enhanced in its attempt to deal with worldwide anti-American sentiment; it can be also viewed as Washington's countermeasure against South Korea's growing public opinion which is critical of Ambassador Vershbow's recent statements.

If the North is really producing and circulating counterfeit dollars as Ambassador Vershbow claims, it is natural for the U.S. to express concerns and take necessary steps. Still, when the timing and method of bringing up this issue and all the evidence presented by the U.S. is put together, it is true that his argument has some flaws.

The U.S. government has presented several pieces of evidence for Pyongyang's involvement in counterfeiting activities: North Korea imported high-precision printing equipment and special ink from outside; and in the first half of this year, South Korea confiscated large quantities of bogus dollars, which were allegedly made in North Korea.

However, this cannot be considered decisive evidence, but simply circumstantial. The U.S. argument that printing machinery and special ink were finally used in the North to produce fake dollars does not go beyond allegation. In addition, the claim that the fake dollars seized by the South Korean government were printed by the North still needs to be verified.

Is the U.S. Truly Seeking a "Resolution" of the North's Counterfeiting Issue?

In this situation, the U.S. government is still regarding North Korea's alleged involvement in counterfeiting and distributing dollars as an established fact and labeling the North a "criminal regime." This is arousing suspicion that U.S. hardliners may try to use it as a pretext to put the brakes on the peace process on the Korean Peninsula.

In this context, the current controversy is similar to that surrounding the "highly enriched uranium" (HEU) issue, which was a prelude to the second North Korean nuclear standoff. In October 2002, the Bush administration announced, "North Korea is developing nuclear weapons based on highly enriched uranium." Since then, three years and two months have passed, but Washington has yet to show any hard evidence.

The same holds for North Korea's counterfeiting activities. It is hard to understand why the Bush administration raises a decade-old suspicion right at this moment. What the U.S. government's reported hard evidence is, and why the Bush administration refuses to sit down with Pyongyang if it finds the counterfeiting issue problematic is also difficult to discern.

Some observers say that the reason why the Bush administration is making an issue of North Korea's forged dollars does not lie in its efforts to resolve the counterfeiting activities, but in its ulterior intention to use the issue to "demonize" North Korea and block the Six-Party process and improvement in inter-Korean relations and Pyongyang-Tokyo ties.

This analysis is supported by the fact that U.S. hawks such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Undersecretary of State Robert G. Joseph are leading the sanctions on North Korea. Ambassador Vershbow is also raising the military threat posed by the isolated nation to ask the South to be more careful in its economic cooperation with the North and has been making a series of inflammatory remarks against North Korea.

North Korea and the U.S. Should Have Bilateral Talks

Ambassador Vershbow stresses that North Korea's counterfeiting activities are a separate issue from the Six-Party Talks. However, this is hardly persuasive in that the nuclear disarmament talks revolve around two points of North Korea's abandoning its nuclear aspirations and the U.S. dropping its hostile policy towards the North. In addition, the removal of the sanctions against the North is essential to bring Washington's hostile policy to a halt. If the North reckons that despite its nuclear abandonment, the U.S. will raise another issue not to stop its hostile policy, the Stalinist nation will be less motivated to get out of its nuclear business.

As Ambassador Vershbow noted, if the U.S. is genuinely determined to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, the U.S. should show its resolve by its actions, not words. In other words, the U.S. has to stop aggravating the issue and display its commitment to the resolution.

To this end, two approaches are required. First, the U.S. should be flexible about the format of the talks. North Korea has already proposed resolving the counterfeiting issue and U.S. financial sanctions through bilateral negotiations. However, the U.S. has stood firm against this idea, saying, "We are ready to brief the North on our financial sanctions, but there will be no negotiation." This is reminiscent of the early stages of the second North Korean nuclear crisis when the U.S. stated, "We will have talks with the North, but not negotiations."

If the U.S. adheres to this undiplomatic attitude, it will be more difficult to restart and make progress in the Six-Party Talks. Therefore, Washington must consider North Korea a negotiating partner, not a criminal state.

Second, in a bid to resolve the issue, the U.S. should present related evidence and the North should provide an explanation about it. Through this desirable approach, we have to confirm that North Korea's involvement in counterfeiting and circulating fake dollars is true. And if it proves true, it should be verified whether those illegal activities are state-sponsored, or if they are simply errant behavior committed by some agencies or agents.

Furthermore, as part of confidence-building measures, the North should pledge to prevent a recurrence of a similar case at the government level, and the U.S. should lift its financial sanctions on the North in return.

If the Bush administration tackles North Korea's counterfeiting activities in this way, this issue will be used as an opportunity to build mutual confidence instead of worsening the bilateral relations. This is why Ambassador Vershbow should not represent U.S. hardliners, but become a mediator in resolving North Korean issues rationally.

Related Articles
[Reply] North Korea Clearly Culpable in Illicit Acts


Cheong Wook Sik's original article in Korean is available here.
©2006 OhmyNews

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