[OUTLOOK]Wide gap between U.S., KoreaWhen President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea sees President George W. Bush of the United States in Washington on June 10, relations between their two nations will be worse than at any time since Americans and South Koreans fought, bled and died together in the Korean War that ended in 1953.
The North Korean nuclear threat will be high on the summit’s agenda but the fundamental, underlying issue will be: “Can and should the deeply troubled alliance between the United States and South Korea be salvaged and if so, how?”
The responsibility for reviving U.S.-South Korea bonds will rest on both presidents, but President Roh must decide first whether that would serve Korea’s interests. If the Koreans say no, there would be little that the United States could do about it; alliances can’t be built on sand.
If the Koreans say yes, it would be up to President Bush to respond positively. Given his attention on Iraq, the war on terror, the Arab-Israeli conflict and domestic issues, it is an open question as to whether he values the alliance with South Korea enough to make the effort.
A small, and discouraging, clue is in the arrangements for the meeting: President Roh will meet with President Bush in the White House, take part in a working lunch, and fly home. No state dinner, no chats with congressional leaders, none of the pageantry that often surrounds a visit by an allied leader.
President Roh’s spokesman, Kim Man-soo, sought to put the best face on it, saying President Roh would “focus his attention on substantive consultations” and would “attend no other events than the summit talks.”
Evidence of the endangered alliance, based in the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1953, dots the landscape. Both sit atop divided nations but from opposite sides of the political spectrum, President Bush a conservative, President Roh a progressive, which influences their respective decisions.
On North Korea, President Bush sees the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, as an implacable enemy. President Roh, reflecting views of younger Koreans, prefers to accommodate ― some say appease ― Kim Jong-il, whom he sees as an errant brother.
President Bush has taken a hard line in negotiations to persuade the North Koreans to give up their plans to acquire nuclear arms that would threaten U.S. forces in Asia, Alaska, and Hawaii. President Roh and many South Koreans doubt that North Korea would use those weapons against them.
The Bush administration wants “strategic flexibility” for the 32,500 U.S. troops in Korea to be able to deploy to missions elsewhere. President Roh has made clear that South Korea will not permit the United States to use Korea as a base for missions it does not approve.
President Roh has asserted that South Korea should seek to be a “balancer” between the United States and China as Beijing acquires more military, economic, and political power in Asia. American critics ask how a supposed ally can strike a balance with a potential adversary.
U.S. military planners in Seoul drew up a contingency plan designated 5029 under which U.S. and ROK forces would move into economically stricken North Korea to establish order if the North Korean regime imploded. President Roh’s government killed the plan.
Japanese officials let it be known that Tokyo could not pass U.S. intelligence reports to Seoul because the Americans don’t trust President Roh’s government. South Korean spokesmen blasted the Japanese for the revelation ― but didn’t deny it.
President Roh has suggested that South Korea no longer needs U.S. forces for defense. “We have sufficient power to defend ourselves,” he said. “We have nurtured mighty national armed forces that absolutely no one can challenge.”
In 12 policy goals President Roh set for his five-year term, which began in 2002, little of security or foreign policy was declared beyond platitudes, and nowhere was the alliance with the United States mentioned.
Behind these disputes is a rampant anti-Americanism that has begun to have a backlash. Koreans frequently demonstrate near the U.S. Embassy or U.S. military headquarters in Seoul, which look like prisons behind thickets of barbed wire. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said several times: “We will not stay where we are not wanted.”
Koreans sometimes say this is part of an identity crisis that causes them to strike out against Americans, Japanese and anyone else they think has crossed them. “The South Koreans fight over what they hate,” says a Korean scholar who asked not to be named, “not over what they stand for.”
* The writer is a former Tokyo correspondent of the New York Times.
by Richard Halloran