U.S. Faces Gap in 'Threat Perception'
South Koreans Don't Share View of Menace from North, Snarling Containment Effort
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SEOUL, South Korea -- There's a message for U.S. crisis managers in the fact that Kim Jong Il's multiple missile launches last week didn't trigger nearly the national outrage here that followed referee Horacio Elizondo's disputed calls in a defeat that disqualified South Korea from World Cup soccer play.
The Korean paper JoongAng Daily reported that 4.2 million South Koreans bombarded the international soccer association's Web site with angry emails before it blocked all incoming volleys.
By contrast, public and official response to the North Korean dictator's July 4 fireworks display has been muted: Seoul has temporarily suspended humanitarian aid but hasn't canceled economic-cooperation projects such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North or tourism to North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort.
What is at work here is what the diplomatic trade calls a "threat perception gap" between Washington and Seoul. And nothing more complicates U.S. action in any international crisis than such a profound disconnect with its most at-risk allies about the perceived danger.
"We have been under an overdose of North Korean threat for too many years," says Han Sung Joo, a former South Korean foreign minister who brokered Pyongyang's showdown with the Clinton administration. "South Koreans fear U.S. military action to eliminate North Korea's weapons would affect them more directly than the weapons themselves."That is a significant turnabout from previous crises involving the North, prompted partly by Seoul's increased confidence and economic strength and partly by expanding cooperative ventures with Pyongyang under the so-called sunshine policy in place since 2000.
South Koreans, concedes Mr. Han, have become too complacent since then about the potential threat of a nuclear-capable dictator whose screws may not be sufficiently tight.
South Koreans fear a U.S. overreaction could drive Pyongyang further into the Chinese camp and thus rule out any unification following the neighboring regime's eventual collapse.
South Korean officials are asking U.S. counterparts, says one U.S. official who has heard the message, "whether they want a China reaching all the way to South Korea or a Western-oriented, reunified Korea with its borders reaching to China."
That has left Washington managing an international crisis that it considers part of its global fight against terrorism and nuclear weapons proliferation, while its ally in Seoul worries more about the neighborhood balance.
"We still have an alliance, but we don't have a common purpose," says another Bush administration official.
Part of what lies behind this South Korean shrug to Mr. Kim's saber-rattling is a conviction that the missiles are meant more to serve notice to Japan (the shorter-range ones that worked) and the U.S. (the long-range Taepodong-2 that fizzled).
They boast of how restrictions imposed on a Macau bank for allegedly aiding Pyongyang's illicit businesses has hit North Korean leaders' personal holdings, and had knock-on benefits as other world banks have cut off Pyongyang.
Mr. Han argues, however, that if the Bush administration aims to be hawkish toward the North, it hasn't even gone about that correctly, failing to draw clear red lines regarding nuclear development that Pyongyang dare not cross.
Japan, with U.S. backing, is pushing for tougher sanctions in the United Nations Security Council.
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