[VIEWPOINT]The Bush agenda in WashingtonOne cannot overestimate the stakes in the meeting between the U.S. and South Korean presidents in Washington this week. Only a meeting between Mr. Bush and Gerhard Schroeder (or better yet, Mr. Bush and Kim Jong Il) would draw more attention. Among the many issues to be discussed by the two leaders, four points appear to be critical for President Bush to make to President Roh.
First, the time and painstaking orchestration put into the preparations for the meeting attests to the Bush administration’s desire to get relations with the new government in Seoul off to a good start. This desire not only stems from vivid memories of the less-than-successful first summit between President Bush and former President Kim Dae-Jung (which still stands as the model for what to avoid in a summit), but also from a genuine desire to restore bilateral confidence in the relationship after the extremely shaky period late last year and in the first quarter of 2003. It would not be an exaggeration to say that at that time, many in Washington believed that the South Koreans had gone truly and permanently off the reservation.
Second, Mr. Bush no doubt believes that the South Korean decision on support in Iraq was the one key factor that gave him more confidence about Seoul than he might have had in the earlier period. No doubt, President Roh undertook several actions after assuming office that showed greater moderation (e.g., visiting with U.S. Forces Korea) compared with his heated rhetoric during the campaign. But the decision to support the U.S. war in Iraq (and send noncombatant troops) without a UN Security Council resolution was important. The fact that Mr. Roh took much domestic heat for the decision showed even more that it was a meaningful one made for the sake of the alliance. Perhaps most important, the decision showed that the Roh administration was not just flexible, but also capable of thinking about the alliance as more than merely an anti-North Korean prop. History shows that the most resilient alliances are capable of expanding their domain beyond the proximate threat that brings them together.
Third: North Korea will, of course, be the most difficult topic of discussion. Mr. Bush will undoubtedly say that he wants a peaceful resolution to the nuclear crisis, but will not take the use of force off the table. To do so would mean that diplomacy would be tantamount to appeasement. In the same breath, however, Mr. Bush will probably say that the option of using force in no way means it is the first one; it is the last.
Even this last-resort option may be disconcerting for Koreans, given the escalatory scenarios that could follow on the peninsula. But South Koreans have to understand that the United States is indeed a different country after Sept. 11, 2001 ― one that is much more accepting of risk when it comes to securing its homeland. The further North Korea heads in the direction of nuclear weapons and the production of fissile material, the more it will be seen by Americans not just as a regional threat to traditional allies but as a direct threat to American soil.
Remember: The American public supported U.S. actions in Iraq not because of Iraq’s threat to the region, but its potential threat to homeland security through the production of weapons of mass destruction.
Fourth, Mr. Bush will probably tell Mr. Roh that both leaders should acknowledge publicly that a change in the U.S. forward presence on the peninsula is inevitable, if not imminent. This is driven not just by generational changes in Korea, but also by longer-term trends in U.S. military technology that enable long-range precision strike and fewer boots on the ground. There may be differences of opinion about how quickly such adjustments should occur, but the two leaders would be foolish to get bogged down in such details. What is more important is to establish a joint, longer-term vision of the alliance that leads rather than follows the changes on the ground and an acknowledgment that without such changes, the alliance will not be able to survive either’s domestic electorates and legislatures.
This is not to say that everything will be rosy in this meeting. There are still some land mines that must be avoided, but the summit provides an opportunity to celebrate 50 years of U.S.-South Korea alliance history as well as to lay out a vision for the future.
The new South Korean leader, though unabashedly anti-American in the past, has thus far shown himself to be a pragmatic individual with whom the United States can work. A poor, self-educated and motivated man who rose to become chief executive of the 11th-largest economy in the world, this man’s success story is, ironically, as American as apple pie.
* The writer is a professor of government and D.S. Song-Korea Foundation chair at Georgetown University.
by Victor D. Cha