U.S. anti-attack vow reassures S. Korea

Pledge not to launch assault on north is made amid buildup on Guam


SEOUL, South Korea - South Korean officials said yesterday that they were reassured by U.S. pledges not to stage a surprise attack against North Korea, amid conflicting signs of American intentions and rising fears that the nuclear crisis might devastate the prospering Korean economy.

The unification minister, Jeong Se-hyun, told Koreans that the United States "would never launch a pre-emptive strike without consulting South Korea" after two dozen heavy American bombers were ordered to the U.S. territory of Guam to buttress defenses against the North.

South Korean officials were equally confident that the country's new foreign minister, Yoon Young-kwan, had either been misquoted or quoted out of context after a Washington dinner last month in which he reportedly said he would prefer a nuclear North Korea to the collapse of the North Korea regime.

Yoon's remark, made at an off-the-record dinner and widely mentioned here without specifically mentioning his name, provided the background for reports here and in Washington that the United States was prepared to live with a nuclear North Korea and focus on preventing the North from exporting nuclear weapons to other countries.

Foreign ministry officials went to great lengths yesterday to explain that Yoon not only had been quoted out of context but also misquoted, though his name had not been previously linked to the remark.

Park Ro-byu, the foreign ministry spokesman, said that Yoon, talking at a gathering that included American officials and Korea experts, had noted that "among young people, there are views that if North Korea collapsed, there is a serious problem."

Yoon, a former professor at Seoul National University, "did not mean to say that a nuclear North Korea was better," said Park. "That's the key point he tried to clarify later."

Two Koreans who attended the dinner said Yoon had been trying to be "helpful" in conveying attitudes here to people in Washington who might not otherwise grasp the significance of anti-American outbursts.

Nonetheless, the outlook of last month's mission to Washington is reported to have permeated the thinking of U.S. officials as they contemplate how to hold North Korea's nuclear program in check while dealing with the ardent opposition of South Korea's new president, Roh Moo-hyun, to the threat of force against the North, even as a last resort.

Roh sent the mission to Washington to lay the groundwork for U.S.-Korean relations during his presidency. Yoon, foreign policy adviser on Roh's transition team, reportedly almost missed out on his appointment as foreign minister in the uproar caused by his off-hand remark.

The rift between the United States and North Korea over holding out what American officials call "the military option" has contributed to growing anxiety in a society that would prefer to shrug off the debate as another storm for diplomats to ride out in endlessly boring negotiations of little concern to most Koreans.

The crisis has begun to hit the stock market in full force. Prices on the Korea Stock Exchange closed yesterday at their lowest level in 16 months.

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