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For Rice, Seoul proves a cautious ally

South Korean officials are skeptical of fully endorsing US policy, even as Rice pushes a firm approach to Pyongyang.

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As she whirls through the capitals of northeast Asia this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is conveying messages tailored to the sensitivities of leaders united in their concern over North Korea's nuclear test but wavering in their responses.

Nowhere is Ms. Rice's message more carefully modulated than in South Korea.

There, the government yearns to rescue its policy of reconciliation with North Korea against US pressure for strong measures to combat what Rice says is "trafficking" in weapons of mass destruction.

The hard-line view of Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, contrasts with China's clearly defined wish to avoid an armed clash with North Korea. But Seoul's view of its alliance with the United States and its relationship with North Korea is more complex than that of any other regional stakeholder.

Anxious to restore historic ties with its northern neighbor, South Korea has pursued a policy of engagement with North Korea that increasingly conflicts with its alliance with the US – and leaves Koreans in sharp disagreement with each other.

"She did very well in Japan where she was assured the US-Japan alliance is in solid shape," says Shim Jae-hoon, a columnist and political commentator here. "But in Korea we have lost the legitimacy of the US alliance and just don't know where we belong."

It was to brace the frayed alliance, and persuade South Korea of the need for real firmness toward North Korea, that Rice spent twice the originally scheduled 30 minutes in a meeting with President Roh Moo Hyun before emerging with a finely tuned view of what the US was doing – and not doing.

She had not come to South Korea "to try to dictate" what the government should do, she said, seated beside Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon. The US, Rice wanted Koreans to understand, has "no desire" to see an escalation in tensions.

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