US President George W. Bush just does not understand South Korea or its president, Roh Moo-hyun. And I doubt he ever will. That was evident from the desultory summit at the White House when Mr Roh visited Washington last week. The aim was to patch up differences in the US-South Korean approach towards North Korea.
The personality differences between Mr Bush and Mr Roh reflect and transcend the gulf between the two countries’ negotiating instincts regarding the North, which are large.
On the personality side, Mr Bush came from a lot of money and an amazing family, went to Harvard to get his business degree after a Yale college degree, and never studied very hard. By contrast, Mr Roh came from a humble family with no money. He studied on his own to pass the bar exam and became a top human-rights lawyer.
Mr Bush used his business degree to drift within the corporate corridors of the oil business before plunging into electoral politics. The oil business is mainly about connections, getting exemptions from environmental regulations and hiding excess profits – as legally as possible – from taxation so that there can be even more money to hide.
Mr Roh used his law degree to help get young, idealistic pro-democracy activists out of jail, where they were often detained illegally and sometimes even tortured by an authoritarian regime backed by the US.
The ability to confound the establishment at a relatively early age made Mr Roh into the most instinctively anti-establishment South Korean president the country has yet seen. Those instincts not only get him into trouble at home in Seoul, where establishment politics is vicious and especially dirty, but also abroad, especially in Washington, where the establishment politics is vicious, dirty and, especially, parochial.
The US has about 32,000 military personnel in South Korea. Like Iraq, South Korea has been occupied by outside nations many times over. That is one of the experiences that North and South Koreas have in common. Another is that the people are Korean in their soul and to their core. Somehow, some way, this divided country must be brought into some kind of national togetherness.
Mr Roh knows how to work with the hard-up and anxious. The wealthy Mr Bush does not, for sure, and does not believe you can negotiate with these North Korean communists.
And so, the personal differences between them are at least as wide as the diplomatic gulf between their countries regarding the North. The truth is that Mr Roh is closer to Kim Jong-il, as a fellow Korean, than to Mr Bush as a putative ally. The path to peace ironically lies between Mr Roh and Mr Kim.
Mr Roh, who opposes a hard line towards the North, knows this; Mr Kim, who thinks he can work Washington to his advantage, may not. That is the cause of the current stalemate as much as anything else.
Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the founder of the Asia-Pacific Media Network.
Copyright – The UCLA Media Centre