[OUTLOOK]Honesty scarce between alliesThe ties between South Korea and the United States are in disarray. The two countries pretend they are going the same way, while taking different directions. Korea talks like an anti-U.S. activist but acts like a U.S. ally. This contradiction adds confusion to the current situation.
Curt Kempbell, a former deputy assistant defense secretary in the Clinton administration, has compared the current relationship to a king and queen who are unhappily married but do not want a divorce.
The two countries manage to show their alliance as if they were a king and queen waving to the people from their balcony and free of problems when, in fact, both are having affairs. The Korea-U.S. alliance is a relationship similar to that. Both within and outside Korea, many people diagnose this alliance as dying, as the two countries have a different stance on North Korea and the ties between the United States and Japan are strengthening.
Seoul and Washington repeatedly say in unison that their alliance is strong and becoming even stronger. The core of an alliance is sharing the same understanding about threats. However, the two countries are running counter on North Korean issues. They even publicly criticize each other’s approach to the problems.
The alliance, however, looks strong, thanks to President Roh Moo-hyun’s unique way of saying one thing and doing another. He makes anti-U.S. remarks, in order to gather support inside the country, while in fact making contributions to the alliance.
While saying, “What is the problem with going against the United States a little bit?” he still sent troops to Iraq. He opposed turning the Korean Peninsula into a U.S. base camp in case of a war in Asia but accepted a strategic flexibility agreement with Washington.
The South Korean government decided to cut the nation’s screen quota system. It also decided to aim for a free trade agreement with the United States. These decisions were surprises to the United States.
These attempts were seen as a vote of confidence that the Roh administration was working for a more consolidated and lasting alliance.
There were also suspicions of whether Seoul was determined enough to carry out these pledges. Some wondered whether the government knew from the beginning that those attempts would fall apart in the course of negotiations, but had to support them in order to avoid any responsibility or blame for the failure.
People wonder what President Roh has on his mind. North Korean issues are in a deadlock and violent clashes have taken place at Pyeongtaek. The president made unclear remarks in Mongolia on the issue of North Korea. At the same time, anti-U.S. sentiment in Korea, such as public opinion against a free trade agreement with the United States, is growing stronger.
People want to know what President Roh meant by “providing more assistance to the North under no conditions,” which is the opposite to Washington’s stance on North Korea ― that is, to pressure Pyongyang under the principle that it will help the communist regime only under certain conditions.
Seoul and Washington had shared the idea that aid should be provided to Pyongyang as a way to solve the North’s nuclear problems, but President Roh’s remark brought an end to this agreement. This matter is too serious to cover with such a lame explanation as being “a final resort to revive the six-party talks.”
At the core of the incidents in Pyeongtaek lies anti-U.S. protests that demand the withdrawal of the U.S. military from Korea. However, the South Korean government kept quiet on this matter and called for order and calm from both protesters and the military as if it was a third party. This stance can easily arouse misunderstanding.
There is one more thing that adds to suspicion. The president’s decision to achieve a free trade agreement with the United States is regarded as a brave step. But governing party members and central power figures have not been making any efforts to win over the politicians and civic groups who oppose the agreement.
The government issued a statement to urge activists to drop their plans to stage protests in Washington against a free trade agreement with the United States. That was it. The American Chamber of Commerce in Korea even had to ask the Korean president and the governing party to take the lead in persuading the public to support a free trade agreement.
As the issue of North Korea’s human rights violations grows bigger, and more and more North Koreans seek asylum in the United States, South Korea and the United States have intensified their mistrust of each other.
The core of North Korea’s nuclear problems is a lack of trust between North Korea and the United States. South Korea does not help them to build trust either. Instead, it is misunderstood as blocking negotiations over the nuclear issue by providing too much aid to the North.
This is much more serious than a difference in opinions. Basic strategies and genuine intentions are becoming confusing and suspicious.
We cannot simply expect this problem to be solved after the Bush administration or the Roh administration has been replaced. The two countries should stop making political gestures or playing games with words. Seoul and Washington need to be more honest with each other.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Byun Sang-keun
More in Columns
A new epicenter of social conflict
Lessons from a president
Tales of Chairman Lee
Chinese way of tackling challenges
Time to step up climate action