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The U.S. Should Heed a Grown-Up S. Korea

Our close ally's opinions deserve respect when it comes to decisions about its unpredictable neighbor, North Korea.

January 05, 2003|Frank B. Gibney | Frank B. Gibney is professor of politics at Pomona College and president of the Pacific Basin Institute. He is the author of "The Pacific Century: America and Asia in a Changing World."

SANTA BARBARA — North Korea's nuclear provocation and the rising tide of anti-Americanism in the South pose major problems for U.S. foreign policy. But last month's election of Roh Moo Hyun as president of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea holds vastly more long-term significance for the Korean-American relationship.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's decision to reopen the plutonium processing plant at Yongbyon and expel United Nations inspectors there has shocked world opinion, but it is not surprising. North Korea remains an economic and political disaster. Its people live under the thumb of a vicious type of Stalinism. Its well-heeled ruling class, which is desperate to stay in power, makes the old Soviet nomenklatura look Jeffersonian.

Nearly 10 years of arm's-length contacts with the prosperous, democratic South have given Kim Jong Il and his palace guard some idea of the outside world; many would like to negotiate a deal for survival. But many more remain paranoid about outsiders -- the United States, in particular -- and want to continue the country's policy of blackmailing South Korea, Japan and the United States by playing the nuclear-bomb card. From the beginning, the hard-liners' long-term objective has been to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its South Korean ally. Consider the current stream of bombast from Pyongyang urging "all Koreans -- North and South" to make common cause against the "reckless and vicious war moves of the U.S. imperialists."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 07, 2003 Home Edition California Part B Page 13 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Korea -- In "The U.S. Should Heed a Grown-Up S. Korea," published in the Jan. 5 Opinion section, Roh Moo Hyun was incorrectly identified as the president-elect of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea, because of an editing error. He will be the new president of South Korea.

Domesticating the North poses it own set of problems. After his election in 1997, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung sought to encourage people exchanges between the North and the South, economic cooperation and a gradual opening of the North to the outside world in the hope of softening Kim Jong Il's dictatorship. Kim, who is a democratic reformer and one of the West's best friends in Asia, and his policies were backed by the Clinton administration. To neutralize Pyongyang's threat to build nuclear bombs in 1994, the U.S., Japan, South Korea and the European Union jointly crafted a plan to provide North Korea with power supplies and, not least, food in return for its abandoning its nuclear-weapons program.

Despite the North's obvious attempts at trickery, President Clinton's plan seemed on its way to getting the North to stop missile production. Meanwhile, Kim's "sunshine policy," despite many fits and starts, produced more cooperation on the divided Korean peninsula than ever before. A working dialogue was in place.

After 2000, the dialogue was broken, a casualty of President Bush's one-size-fits-all diplomacy. This not only undermined Seoul's sunshine policy; it also destroyed Kim's political credibility. Bush's insistence -- accompanied by threats to cut off the promised fuel supplies -- that North Korea disarm before dialogue could be restarted reinforced Pyongyang's paranoia. It was only a matter of time before Kim Jong Il's communist mandarins would renege on their agreements.

South Koreans blame the Americans, rather than the North, for the demise of the sunshine policy. To them, Bush's inclusion of North Korea in his "axis of evil" became a symbol of U.S. aggression and intransigence. It's easy to forget that a new generation has grown up in South Korea, with little historical memory of the 1950-53 war and U.S. help. It sees the U.S. treating South Korea not as an ally but as a client state. China and Japan are alternately courted, but South Korea seems taken for granted.

The continued presence of the 8th U.S. Army on choice land in the heart of Seoul remains a source of tension between the U.S. and South Korea. Last June, when two 13-year-old schoolgirls were accidentally run over by a U.S. Army armored vehicle, most Koreans were shocked by what they regarded as America's casual attitude toward the incident. Like the rapes of Japanese girls on Okinawa, Japan, a few years back, the Korean teenagers' deaths stirred up long-standing anti-Americanism that finds expression in the opinion among some young Koreans that the real warmonger is Bush, not Kim Jong Il. America's public perception among South Koreans has never been worse, yet Washington has done spectacularly little to improve it.

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