Copyright – The International Herald Tribune
FRIDAY, JUNE 10, 2005
SEOUL When President George W. Bush of the United States and President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea meet in Washington on Friday, they will discuss a topic few of their predecessors ever thought to consider: What is wrong with their countries’ 50-year-old alliance?
The Korean-American partnership, forged in blood during the Korean War, has been an exemplary success story of Washington’s postwar foreign policy. In a span of five decades, South Korea has overcome threats of communism, poverty and dictatorship to become a full-fledged democracy, the world’s 11th largest economy and Washington’s No. 7 trading partner.
As Roh embarked on Thursday for the talks, however, once-solid ties are so strained that some experts compare the relationship to two partners in the same bed having different nightmares – in this case, about North Korea and other intractable issues.
Under Bush and Roh, Washington and Seoul have developed deeply divergent views on how to resolve the North’s nuclear weapons threat, how to define the future of their military alliance, and how to deal with the rising influence of China and its growing conflict with Japan.
Before Roh departed, South Korean news media reported that Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless, on a visit to Seoul earlier this week, warned Korean officials that Washington might pull its troops out of South Korea – and effectively end the alliance – if Seoul continued to oppose the Pentagon’s plans for reshaping the military relationship.
Without directly refuting Lawless’s reported remarks, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Lee Kyu Hyung, said, “The Korea-U.S. alliance is not so weak that it could be swayed by comments from one or two working-level officials.”
Nonetheless, the remarks were an evident measure of just how sensitive relations between Seoul and Washington have become. And few issues divide the two capitals just now as much as the North Korea question.
“The primary sources of strain are divergent views on how best to handle the North Korean nuclear challenge,” said Peter Hayes, director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, a research organization in Berkeley, California.
After weeks of mixed signals and confusion, the United States and North Korea have yet to agree on terms for the resumption of multiparty talks on the North’s nuclear weapons program.
While there have been encouraging moments recently, neither side has demonstrated convincingly that it is prepared to make the compromises necessary to resume the talks, which were suspended a year ago.
For its part, South Korea insists on a prominent role in the nuclear negotiations, Seoul officials say, because “if this crisis goes wrong, we are the one who would suffer the most.”
Seoul lies within the range of North Korean artillery. Held hostage by the threat, South Korea sees few options other than to be patient with the North.
Hence its repeated appeals to Washington to become “more flexible” with the North Korean regime, which the South’s foreign minister this week called an “isolated and dictatorial group unprecedented in the world’s history.”
An immediate question for Bush and Roh, therefore, is whether the equally blunt leaders can overcome their “perception gap” on North Korea and their alleged misgivings about each other and find a unified strategy for ending the North’s nuclear weapons threat.
“There is a serious and growing crisis regarding U.S. perceptions of Korea and more particularly of Korean policy toward the North,” L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, said in an article on the Web site of the Nautilus Institute this week.
How the two nations address the North Korean issue “will ultimately determine what dreams Korea and the United States will share in the future.”
More broadly, many in Washington view Roh as a nationalist and populist who seeks a “balancer’s role” between the United States and China and capitalizes on anti-Americanism among young Koreans for domestic political gains.
A common image of Bush among many South Koreans, however, is of a trigger-happy Texan cowboy whose “with us or against us” unilateralism increases the danger of war on the Korean Peninsula more than North Korea itself.
U.S. troops in South Korea, currently numbering 32,500, have been there since the Korean War. But Washington and Seoul have recently bickered over the Pentagon’s demand that its troops in South Korea become more flexible for deployment beyond the peninsula.
The plan raised fears in South Korea that American troops based there could become embroiled in regional conflicts in Asia, in particular between Taiwan and China.
“In a post 9/11 world, the United States has skepticism about its traditional alliance with South Korea, which has been anchored on the single common threat called North Korea,” said Kim Sung Han, a security expert at Seoul’s Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security.
Reports of a possible breakup of the alliance are seen as alarmist.
But Kim said, “More than ever, it’s time for the leaderships of the two countries to present a clear vision for their alliance.”
Even before the meeting is held, South Korean officials said that Bush and Roh would reconfirm their commitment to the alliance and a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis.
“Usually such official announcements are made once a summit is over, but never mind,” said Seoul’s conservative daily, Chosun Ilbo. “The whole world knows that there are differences over North Korea between Seoul and Washington; that cannot be concealed however hard they may try.”
In a symbolic gesture on the eve of his departure, Roh invited U.S. generals to his office, and said: “Since I became president, there have been many changes in the alliance. There were some differences, and negotiations took a long time. Although there are still some complaints, I believe the two sides share the same views on most issues and the issues are being managed well.”
U.S. and South Korean officials routinely insist that the bilateral relationship is as strong as ever. But experts see many differences.
While the United States views the North as an “axis of evil” rogue regime and its leader Kim Jong Il as a “tyrant” who threatens to spread weapons of mass destruction, surveys show that South Koreans tend to regard North Korea as a misguided cousin and fear that Bush’s aggressive approach might provoke an unwanted and unthinkable conflict with North Korea.
North Korean authorities will scrutinize every word Bush uses in describing the North Korean leader when Bush stands with Roh before the media after their talks. Seoul officials virtually cringe whenever Bush attacks Kim.