[VIEWPOINT]Cheney trip at a critical time

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[VIEWPOINT]Cheney trip at a critical time

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is visiting Japan, China and Korea this week.
Mr. Cheney’s trip was planned a year ago but was delayed because of the war in Iraq.
This Northeast Asia tour takes place during the adjournment of the U.S. Senate. Mr. Cheney’s visit to Northeast Asia when the U.S. presidential election campaign is already in full swing and Washington is being harried by the aggravating situation in Iraq is a symbol of just how important these three countries figure in U.S. foreign policy.
The vice president’s visit this time is focused not as much on finding solutions to current issues as on solidifying the friendship and cooperative systems with the three countries of Northeast Asia. Korea and Japan are two countries that have sent troops to Iraq as U.S. allies.
China is surfacing as the United States’ “strategic partner,” having supported the U.S. war against terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. Beijing plays a mediating role in the North Korean nuclear situation.
Mr. Cheney is possibly the most powerful vice president in U.S. history and exerts considerable influence, especially in the field of foreign affairs and national security. He has a separate foreign policy staff that includes discerning Asia experts such as Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
Dick Cheney is sometimes categorized as a “neo-conservative,” but it would be more correct to see him as a pure and authentic conservative.
He is a hard-liner when it comes to North Korea, but when the so-called neo-conservative scholars and bureaucrats in Washington suggested the possibility of a “preemptive strike” in case diplomatic measures failed to clear up North Korea’s nuclear situation, Mr. Cheney led the argument that it would be more efficient to pursue regime change in North Korea by isolating it.
No doubt, the twin central issues in this three-leg tour of Northeast Asia will be Iraq and North Korea’s nuclear program. Mr. Cheney will probably spend a good part of his visit here advocating the legitimacy of the war in Iraq and urging support for the dispatch of troops and U.S. policies.
Also, his visit is expected to reaffirm cooperation with Korea, Japan and China on the demand for a “verifiable and irreversible solution” to North Korea’s nuclear program in the six-party talks scheduled to be held in June.
However, not everything is expected to run smoothly for Mr. Cheney during his trip.
One of the problems he has already had to address is the current predicament faced by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Japan is in the middle of a a political ordeal after the kidnapping of three Japanese nationals in Iraq and threats by their captors to kill them if Japan does not withdraw its troops there.
Seven Chinese civilians were also kidnapped by Iraqi gunmen on Sunday, adding to the worries of China, which was already troubled enough by the resurfacing of the “Taiwan issue” with the re-election of pro-independence Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian.
Still, the highlight of the three-leg tour is Korea.
Mr. Cheney will arrive in Seoul today, in the midst of the legislative elections, and will personally witness the outcome of the election which will determine the direction of Korean politics after the turmoil of President Roh Moo-hyun’s impeachment.
It will not be with a light heart that Mr. Cheney visits Seoul. After-effects of the anti-American sentiment that flared up a year ago after an armored vehicle driven by U.S. soldiers in a military exercise crushed two middle school girls to death still linger.
The Roh administration was voted into power on its promise of a more equal footing in relations with the United States.
For Mr. Cheney, who is the leader of the Senate and had been elected as a representative five times in the past, the results of the legislative elections today in Korea will be of great interest.
Those election results will be an important factor in future U.S.-Korean relations. With the aggravated situation in Iraq, certain candidates have opposed the dispatch of Korean soldiers to Iraq in their election campaigns.
It is also significant that Mr. Cheney, who is in fact the highest-ranking expert and authority on U.S. foreign policies and security affairs, will have an opportunity to hold discussions on several important issues such as the transfer of U.S. troops from their Yongsan base, the revision of the military alliance and North Korea’s nuclear program.
There has recently been a considerable amount of discrepancy in opinions between Seoul and Washington concerning issues such as the revision of the military alliance and North Korea’s nuclear program.
However close the allies are, it is natural that two states would have different positions and views on certain issues. The question is how to coordinate these differences in a balanced and mutually beneficial way.
Korea and the United States are politically, economically and strategically indispensable to each other. Both sides must show efforts to understand each other better.
Korea is experiencing growing pains as it undergoes rapid change. Control of politics has gone from the conservatives to the liberals and a generational change is taking place in Korean society.
The Cold War generation that experienced the Korean War and the Vietnam War alongside the United States is dwindling, and now a younger generation that demands more balanced ties with the country’s biggest ally by far makes up three-quarters of the population.
I sincerely hope that Mr. Cheney’s visit to Korea will contribute to better understanding between the two allies and provide a landmark opportunity for the further improvement of U.S.-Korean relations.

* The writer is a professor of international relations at Myongji University and a senior associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Seung-hwan
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