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U.S. may hit rough patch in Koreas

South Korea’s new leader and President Bush appear to have little in common. Some analysts argue that their relationship, if not handled carefully, could mark a serious setback to U.S. interests in the region. By Kari Huus.
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The Bush White House and South Korea’s president-elect, Roh Mu Hyun, quickly moved to put the most positive spin on relations after Roh’s victory. But analysts suggest that South Korea’s new leader and President Bush have little in common — particularly in their view of communist North Korea. And some argue that the relationship, if not handled carefully, could mark a serious setback to U.S. interests in the region.

On Thursday, when Roh’s victory was official, Bush put in the traditional call to offer his congratulations and extend an invitation to visit the White House. That was pro forma.

More unusual was a second phone conversation between the two leaders Friday and a statement from Roh’s office apparently intended to calm concerns that the Seoul-Washington relationship was headed for trouble.

“President-elect Roh and President Bush agreed to work closely together for peace on the Korean Peninsula and strengthen the South Korea-U.S. alliance,” the statement from Roh’s office said.

The extra effort will be needed, analysts say, because Roh and Bush are on divergent paths. Roh, who hails from the Millennium Democratic Party, defeated his conservative opponent, Lee Hoi Chang, in part by riding a resurgent wave of anti-Americanism, especially among the younger generation. He espouses a dramatically different approach to Pyongyang from that of the Bush administration — arguably at cross-purposes.

“Unless adeptly managed, the U.S.-[South Korean] military alliance is likely to face its greatest challenges ever in 2003, the year of its 50th anniversary,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea expert with the American Enterprise Institute. “Although still unlikely, a breakup of the alliance is not impossible.”

The stakes are high. The United States has about 37,000 troops based in South Korea, and the alliance has been a fixture in the security make-up of the region since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Just across the 38th parallel from Seoul is North Korea, with a massive build-up of conventional weapons. The United States is increasingly concerned about Pyongyang’s stock of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Dealing with the North
Roh says he intends to follow in the footsteps of his democratic predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, who launched the policy of engagement with Pyongyang that he dubbed the “sunshine policy.”

On the assumption that North Korea would gradually reform and open up if talks and exchanges proceeded, Kim launched top-level summits, a program to allow relatives divided in the Korean War to meet for the first time in 50 years, and the start of rail links between the two countries, even though they are officially still at war.

Kim’s diplomatic overtures got mixed reviews in South Korea, but in the end voters chose Roh — who vowed to preserve the sunshine policy — over his conservative opponent, who would have taken harder line.

“Many South Koreans don’t believe there’s a North Korea threat anymore,” said Robert Dujarric, research fellow at the Hudson Institute. “It may be a pain in the neck, but not a threat.”

That casts doubt on the approach to Pyongyang taken by the current U.S. administration, which, even to start, took a hard line and questioned any effort to talk with the communist regime. It then labeled North Korea part of the “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iran. And since November, when a U.S. envoy reported that a North Korean official admitted to a program of uranium enrichment, the relationship has grown even more hostile and distrustful, with both sides refusing to comply with one of their few agreements, the 1994 Agreed Framework. That means the United States is refusing to deliver fuel oil to North Korea and North Korea says it is restarting a heavy-water nuclear reactor — potentially part of a nuclear weapons program — to produce energy.

Ironically, many South Koreans do not see the nuclear threat as aimed at the South. “The nuclear issue is seen as a U.S. problem, not a South Korean problem,” said Clark Sorenson, a Korean studies professor at University of Washington.

So the absence of a perceived threat “has left the South Korean public uncertain about the reasons for the continued stationing of U.S. troops on their soil,” Eberstadt said.

Recent surveys show that just more than half of South Koreans have a favorable view of the United States, but that number has dropped significantly in the past two years. Young people in particular see the United States as an obstacle to peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula.

The resentment of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea — or at least resentment of their special privileges — then flared in the months running up to elections, when a U.S. military court acquitted two soldiers of negligent homicide after the military vehicle they were driving struck and killed two South Korean schoolgirls.

As the liberal candidate, Roh was able to capitalize on the frustration and massive anti-U.S. protests over the case, suggesting a revision of the U.S. basing agreement the — Status of Armed Forces Agreement, or SOFA — to subject visiting troops to greater local jurisdiction.

Roh, a 56-year-old human rights lawyer, complained during his campaign that what he called Bush’s overbearing approach to North Korea was hurting South Korea’s efforts to reconcile with the communist state. He said he would not “kowtow” to U.S. leaders.

He has said he wants to put the U.S.-South Korean relationship on a more even footing and pursue a “leading” role in defusing tension over North Korea’s nuclear threat, rather than “obeying U.S. policy.”

Lowering the volume
Not too surprisingly, Roh turned down the rhetoric immediately after his victory. In his first official news conference, he said he would closely cooperate with the United States in resolving concerns about North Korea’s nuclear development program. He also accepted Bush’s invitation to visit the White House shortly after his February inauguration, despite earlier statements that suggested otherwise.

And the State Department shrugged off Roh’s tough talk — “made in the heat of the campaign.”

“President-elect Roh has expressed his firm commitment to the U.S.-[South Korean] relationship, and we are no less committed,” spokeswoman Amanda Batt said.

In reality, dramatic change — like the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country — is, for now, very unlikely.

The friction is more likely to come in fits and starts as the White House presses South Korea, as well as Japan, Russia and China, to impose economic sanctions on the North, which they hope would force the Stalinist regime of Kim Jong Il to change his ways.

That will not be an easy sell with Roh, who, like his predecessor, is more concerned about the prospect of a North Korean regime collapse — and millions of hungry refugees flooding across the border — than it is worried about an attack from Pyongyang.

And there is a personality issue, say some analysts.

Roh “is a largely untested political figure whose views on key international security questions are still somewhat unclear,” Eberstadt said. “But he appears to harbor deep reservations about the United States.”

That concern is magnified by Bush’s style, “especially since Bush tends to personalize foreign policy,” said Dujarric of the Hudson Institute.

Some analysts envision a clash-and-make-up session like the one between Bush and Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder after Schroeder disparaged Bush as a war-mongering dictator. It took weeks to paper over the cracks in that important relationship.

Also, there is the precedent of Kim Dae-jung’s visit to the White House shortly after Bush took office. The meeting ended in humiliation for Kim, when Bush announced that he would review all previous policy toward North Korea, showing clear skepticism of the sunshine policy and that of his predecessor Bill Clinton. The two leaders’ differences surfaced publicly and the talks ended inconclusively.

So when Bush and Roh do talk, Dujarric said, the agenda and positions had better be well laid-out in advance. “Roh is not a natural ally with Bush, so to avoid a fiasco [they] have to make sure that it is very well prepared.”

Friday, Bush and Roh agreed to exchange visits by their aides before the South Korean leader’s inauguration in February, so that may be a start in the right direction.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.