[VIEWPOINT]Old allies, new sentimentsWas it because he finally realized that there is no one in the world like the United States to be allied with?
The sudden and extreme change in President Roh Moo-hyun’s words emphasizing the importance of the U.S.-Korea alliance throughout his visit to the United States has left quite a few of us astounded.
The conservatives, though relieved at the new “pro-American” walk and talk of the president, still feel a little nervous that something is amiss; liberals are disappointed that the government has lost its ideological identity.
Whatever the individual evaluation of the president’s visit may be, the undeniable and important fact is that the president’s visit has changed the previously rocky U.S.-Korea relationship more or less back to normal. At this point, we should try to understand the rationale for the president’s behavior during his visit rather than react emotionally to it.
Many among the public are complaining that the president had been too “humble” in dealing with the United States. Moreover, there is concern that the president had left the impression in Washington that he was easy to handle rather than a comfortable partner to talk to. The latter was Mr. Roh’s intention. There are those who also worry that this impression that they are dealing with a pushover might be the one the North Koreans have of President Roh.
For a short period after the inauguration of the “participatory government,” we experienced the momentary bliss of an independent foreign policy under the slogan of “an equal U.S.-Korea relationship.” Of course not only would such a policy be difficult to carry out but once established, it could do more harm than good to the national interest.
Regardless of the outcome of the summit meeting, the cry for an independent foreign policy that began with the Roh Moo-hyun government is not a temporary whim. It is not the product of the personal beliefs of the president but the reflection of a political flow that has been given power for the first time in our political history. In some ways, it is a natural thing for Koreans, who have achieved the most successful democracy and market economy in Asia, to desire an independent foreign policy. The problem had been that this cry was in face of a United States already troubled by its war on terrorism and its efforts to find a solution to the dangerous stalemate over North Korea’s nuclear program.
Realistically, it would be impossible for us to solve the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program by ourselves without the help of the United States. To cry for “anti-American independence” at such times could result in our becoming an international orphan; our face would be pressed against the window pane of the room where other nations were searching for a solution to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. We could end up like Egypt’s former President Gamal Nasser, who became an international orphan when he pursued an independent line perched precariously between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Perhaps it was precisely the fate of President Nasser that President Roh feared.
Thanks to the president’s transformation, the Roh administration might be able to maintain a “convenient” U.S.-Korea relationship for the time being. The point, however, is that future U.S.-Korea relations will never be the same as they were before the Roh administration. This administration marks a divide in the history of the U.S.-Korea relationship in which a new ideological horizon has appeared. The president has changed pragmatically, but it seems like an inevitable strategic change for the national interest rather than a genuine sympathy for the strategic goals of the United States.
Until now, we had all thought that it was the president’s unconventional words and actions that caused the U.S.-Korea relations to go sour. But we must focus not on the president as an individual but on the new flow in Korean society that other countries have also noticed. This is a not a simple eruption of nationalistic sentiment that seeks to find immediate satisfaction. It is the wave of challenge that has now taken over political power. That is why there could be political conflict should the government implement its promised cooperation with the United States and discuss “additional measures” against North Korea.
The task of putting U.S.-Korea cooperation into action, therefore, should be worked on with an understanding of the new flow in Korean society even if it complicates the task. If that is impossible, the U.S.-Korea relationship will once again fall into the whirlpool of political conflict.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.
by Chang Dal-joong