[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Roh had no option but to gambleThe war came last week, as expected. A few hours before the hostilities began, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney called President Roh Moo-hyun to inform him of the impending attack. After the first bombs fell, the president addressed the nation to declare Korea’s support for the war by stating that it was in Korea’s national interest to support its U.S. ally. He announced plans to contribute a non-combatant force of 700 to the war effort. The proposal now waits for approval from the National Assembly.
Under normal situations, Korean support for a war or major U.S. foreign policy initiative would attract little attention or controversy. This has been the nature of the fifty-plus-year-old Korea-U.S. alliance. The war in Iraq and Mr. Roh’s presidency are abnormal situations, creating unique pressures on the alliance. In the context of these pressures, Mr. Roh’s decision to support the U.S.-led war in Iraq took great courage.
Expressions of support for the U.S. have increased since hostilities began, but Mr. Roh’s early declaration of support put Korea on the initial list of 30 nations that backed the United States. The list is most notable for the nations that are not on it. France and Germany, two pillars of the postwar Western European alliance, are absent. Canada and Mexico are absent. Like Korea, Canada and Mexico have been close allies of the United States for many decades. Millions of Canadians and Mexicans live in the United States and more Americans visit Canada and Mexico than any other country. Relations among the three nations have deepened since the North America Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994. Canada fought alongside the United States as a firm ally in every war of the 20th century, except for the Vietnam conflict.
Turkey, another long-time ally of the United States, was on the initial list of 30 nations backing a strike, but repeated flip-flops about access to Turkish territory and use of its airspace have strained the relationship. Turkey fought with the United Nations in the Korean War and the Gulf War, and plays a key role in the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance.
Korea could easily have joined Canada, Mexico and Turkey in demurring on support for the war against Iraq. As in Europe, public opinion in Korea is overwhelmingly against the war. An oft-quoted study on world sentiment by the Pew Research Center shows that public opinion in Korea is more negative toward the United States than it is in almost any other non-Islamic nation in Asia. The after-shocks of the anti-Americanism that helped elect Mr. Roh as president still rumble. Among Korea’s closest friends and trading partners, only Australia, Britain and Japan have openly supported Washington. On a personal level, Mr. Roh and Mr. Bush have never met, and many in the new administration remain suspicious of the U.S. president’s intentions.
And then there is North Korea.
Seoul’s support for the war pours cold water on Pyeongyang’s efforts to separate Korea from the United States, risking a rash response from the North.
With so many political reasons not to support the United States, Mr. Roh’s decision is indeed courageous. In doing so, he puts Korea in the company of nations such as Australia, Britain, Japan and Spain, whose leaders defied public opinion in the name of national interest. These leaders are gambling that siding with the world’s only superpower will bring rewards in their national interest. The rewards may be maintenance of a military alliance with the United States, influence over future U.S. policy, or construction contracts in the recovery of Iraq.
The Americans know that their friends expect rewards. For Korea, the reward is maintenance of an alliance that was on the verge of collapse only a few months ago. As a nation that views itself as embattled, the United States will long remember Mr. Roh’s act of loyalty.
Korea’s president has earned a place at the American table where he can whisper “remember Iraq.”
* The writer is an accociate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser