- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2002

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung fired his foreign minister yesterday amid deterioriating relations with the United States over President Bush's State of the Union speech that labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil."
The dismissal came as Han Seung-soo, who served as foreign minister for less than a year, flew home from a series of high-profile meetings with U.S. officials ahead of a Feb. 20 summit in Seoul between Mr. Bush and the South Korean president.
In Seoul, a spokesman for Mr. Kim denied that Mr. Bush's speech had triggered Mr. Han's firing.
"The decision has nothing to do with Bush's toughened stance against Pyongyang," an official in Mr. Kim's office told the Reuters news agency in Seoul. "Han's replacement is simply part of last week's Cabinet reshuffle, which was more related to domestic politics."
But South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that Mr. Han was let go for not doing enough to counter mounting tensions between the United States and North Korea.
Larry Wortzel, director of the Heritage Foundation's Asia Studies Center, said he believed that Mr. Han was dismissed because he was "not able to manage the focus that President Bush will pay on reciprocity from North Korea" during his trip to Seoul.
Mr. Bush, for example, is insisting on gestures from Pyongyang such as a reduction of troops based at the North-South border in exchange for an improvement in relations.
"President Bush laid out a very clear position that the U.S., unlike in the Clinton administration, is no longer going to look the other way and ignore weapons proliferation," Mr. Wortzel said.
On his arrival in Seoul yesterday, Mr. Han said he was "leaving office with a heavy heart as things are becoming complicated."
Mr. Han, who is expected to retain a separate post as president of the U.N. General Assembly, was replaced by Vice Foreign Minister Choi Sung-hong, a career diplomat.
Mr. Bush's naming North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, as an "axis of evil" for developing weapons of mass destruction that could be used by terrorists was widely interpreted in South Korea as a blow to Mr. Kim.
Mr. Kim, who won the 2000 Nobel Peace Price, has staked his political career on a "sunshine policy" of increased cultural, diplomatic and economic contacts with the isolated North in an attempt to end hostilities and unify the divided peninsula.
"The Bush administration, from the time it came into office, has been tugging at the rug under Kim Dae-jung's feet, and this 'evil axis' speech has pulled the rug out completely," said William Taylor, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
"This upcoming summit [in Seoul] is going to be a major effort in damage control," Mr. Taylor said.
With less than a year remaining in office, Mr. Kim finds himself facing a series of domestic bribery scandals, as well as pressure to show results in his policy of rapprochement with the North.
Seoul is perhaps America's closest ally in Asia. About 37,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea as a deterrent against a repeat of the North's 1950 invasion that triggered the Korean War.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, North Korean sales of ballistic missiles to nations such as Iran have again surfaced as a concern of U.S. officials, especially given Iran's willingness to sell weapons to terrorist groups.
An unclassified CIA report made public last week said North Korea has continued to import components needed to build missiles and to sell missiles to nations in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa during the first six months of last year.
In public remarks, officials in Washington and Seoul have downplayed any talk of a rift between the two capitals, most recently after a Friday meeting in New York between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Mr. Han.
Mr. Powell said at the time that the United States supported Mr. Kim's efforts at reconciliation but that the United States remained skeptical of North Korean intentions.
A State Department official declined to comment yesterday on Mr. Han's ouster.
But the official, who asked not to be named, said Mr. Powell "looks forward to working closely with Foreign Minister Choi to continue strengthening our close and enduring alliance and coordinating our joint efforts to resolve tensions on the Korean Peninsula."
An undercurrent of tension between Seoul and Washington goes back to the early days of the Bush administration, when the new president froze contacts with the North as it conducted a review of U.S. foreign policy.


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