[TODAY]Don't rush a Bush-Roh meetingA U.S. journalist with an exceptional talent for reporting on Washington's policies on the Korean Peninsula sent me an e-mail earlier this week. He wrote, "The special envoy did not lessen Washington's concerns. The two governments seem to be on completely different tracks. This situation will probably continue for a while."
Two questions rose in my mind. How long did "for a while" mean, and what had been wrong with the special envoy that President-elect Roh Moo-hyun sent to Washington with the purpose of reassuring the U.S. government?
"For a while" means from the day Mr. Roh is inaugurated until the day somewhere between March and May when he will meet with U.S. President George W. Bush for the first time in Washington. If the two countries coordinate their positions accordingly, before and after the two leaders meet, the differences of opinion between South Korea and the United States and Washington's uneasiness over South Korean sentiment about the United States could be resolved. Both governments are making strenuous efforts to wash away the mutual distrust and conflict that have risen over North Korea's nuclear developments and the surge of anti-American sentiment in Korean society. Just as President Kim Dae-jung took over from Kim Young-sam to deal with the financial crisis in 1997, so Mr. Roh is pushing President Kim to the sidelines and stepping up personally to try to heal South-U.S. relations. After the Clinton administration left office and Mr. Bush came in, U.S.-South Korea relations dipped to their lowest point since the late 1970s, when the Carter administration clashed with Park Chung Hee over human rights issues and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea. To President Kim, Mr. Bush is the man who "poured ashes on the rice" of North-South reconciliation and the normalization of U.S.-North Korea relations. To Mr. Bush, the South Korean president and Bill Clinton were naive and were deceived by Kim Jong-il to support a crumbling regime with a flood of aid.
So the burden of renovating Seoul-Washington relations falls on President-elect Roh's shoulders. But from the U.S. perspective, Mr. Roh seems like the tiger that pops up before the hunter who had just run away from the wolf. The reason for the gap between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kim was North Korea. Now Mr. Roh's demand for a level playing field in relations between the two governments poses an additional obstacle to good Seoul-Washington relations.
Mr. Roh's comments on the United States during the presidential election campaign sounded like a warning that things would change drastically between Seoul and Washington should he become president. After the election, Mr. Roh was trying hard to tone down the hard-line image he had nurtured to give President Bush more reason to look forward to the first summit meeting.
But there is no change in Mr. Roh's belief that South Korea-U.S. relations need to be equal. That determination is what influenced his special envoy. The delegation went to Washington determined to say what it had to say and to say it loudly and clearly, even to the point of bluntness. Seized by patriotic passion, they were somewhat lacking in the diplomacy necessary to deliver South Korea's position on U.S.-Korean relations clearly but tactfully. The members of the delegation also seemed not to have coordinated their talking points. Every man seems to have spoken for himself, further confusing the U.S. officials and journalists that met them.
The senseless comment that it would be better to let North Korea have nuclear weapons than to let it crumble probably was made under such circumstances. The members of the delegation denied having made this comment, then admitted to the comment but denied that it meant what it sounded like it meant. We seem to have sent a fine bunch that could not even express itself properly as a presidential delegation.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Korea-U.S. alliance. Looking back on the times and the changes international society has gone through, Korea-U.S. relations have probably been too slow to change. South Korea's humble attitude toward Washington arose from the special situation of having been a nation divided and having had long years of military rule between 1961 and 1987 under Park Chung Hee, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo. They were eager to persuade the United States to turn its eyes away from the oppressive nature of their regimes.
Had Lee Hoi-chang been elected, Korea-U.S. relations would have remained pretty much the way they have been for at least another five years. It is most probable that the Bush administration had hoped Mr. Lee would win. Roh Moo-hyun's election signals a new chapter in the Korea-U.S. relations. This means an inevitable review of the U.S. military presence in South Korea.
Seoul-Washington ties need to match their pace with developments in Seoul-Pyeongyang relations. Forming an accord of opinions on the solution to the North Korea problem, the two governments need to find a new relationship that can transcend the nuclear issue. The Roh-Bush meeting should not be hurried. Enough time should be taken for thorough preparations. Take a lesson from the disastrous Kim-Bush summit meeting in March 2001.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie